Shipping emissions inflated by Cape route

I often wonder which image from early 21st century archives will be adopted by our grandchildren as most symbolic of our errant lifestyles.

We all know the likely candidates – the patio heater, the much loved Jumbo jet, the derided sports utility vehicle – all flourish in defiance of our knowledge of their contribution to an uncertain future.

My bet for the picture of our times chosen to funnel the anger of the 2050 generation is the lonely container ship making its way around the Cape of Good Hope, sailing eastwards from Europe to China with its standard cargo of waste paper.

This image will represent more than the anachronistic combustion of filthy bunker fuel. It will express also the chronic failure of our economic system which is the underlying cause of climate change and of our inability to effect a remedy.

So why is our ship taking on the Roaring Forties in preference to the calm of the Suez Canal?

The ship owners (and most of the big names indulge in this practice) would reply that it’s a simple equation of cost. If the price of fuel is in one of its periodic dips and the Suez Canal Authority pitches the transit fees too high, then it’s cheaper to take the longer route. For most of this year, the equation has favoured the Cape option.

As late as 2009 therefore the economics of shipping yields greater profits through a decision to burn fuel for an extra 3400 nautical miles. No pricing mechanism exists to correct this distortion; no quotas or practice guidelines rule out the option.

And why carry scrap paper to the Chinese? Surely our recycling efforts are designed to cut unnecessary emissions?

The shipping companies will say that scrap paper is better than nothing, which may be the alternative for the easterly passage.

The root of the problem is that our globalised market economy drives volume manufacturing into the arms of a single low cost country, It’s happened before with Hong Kong and Japan and now China has embraced the model to extremes. We don’t trade with the Chinese in the old-fashioned sense of exchange. We buy their stuff and the ships often return empty.

If environmental costs, including the climate costs of shipping emissions, were internalised into the world economy, the absurdity of transporting everyday goods across the globe might become less likely. It might even create a better chance for African countries to gain a foot on the manufacturing ladder.

Surely the new decade will see an end to the Cape shipping route?

Not if events of the first half of 2009 are anything to go by. The global recession and banking crisis created a perfect opportunity for world leaders to address structural flaws. A good place to start would have been our method of measuring economic value.

Currently we attribute positive value to the depletion of finite resources and ignore the cost of pollution. But the chance has been missed and instead we are witnessing a desperate rush to restore so-called “growth”.

Doubts also remain whether the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference will rectify the exclusion of shipping emissions from global commitments. A last chance meeting of the International Maritime Organisation in London last week yielded a miserable package of voluntary and unquantifiable measures.

Whilst the economics and politics of shipping are much more complicated than I have implied here, the active use of the Cape of Good Hope diversion is testimony to the IMO’s neglect of its responsibilities over the last ten years.

Campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth and WWF have made restrained and constructive suggestions for the industry to get its act together on climate change.

These have been largely rejected by the IMO but its statements betray a sense of fear that a solution is about to be imposed on the industry. As President Obama might conceivably say in Copenhagen, you guys are on the wrong side of history.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK