Shipping from early times has kept world trade afloat – now is shipping threatening to sink our world?

Not too many years ago I worked with steam raising plant, and we burned heavy oil, so viscose that heaters had to be attached to the pipes to keep it flowing. This oil was cheap about 50% cheaper than light oil, it burned fine, in oil-burning boilers and specially adapted heavy oil-burning engines even had the advantage of it lubricated as it drove the combustion engines. What we all knew of course was it produced a lot of smoke and a heavy flake of ‘Black Carbon’ from the stack so was phased out within towns and cities. However, it was still used extensively as the fuel of choice for shipping.

The biggest modern container ships will carry up to one hundred thousand containers, if you filled each of these containers with shoes from China to take to Europe then you would need 170,000,000 boxes of shoes. So efficient have these ships become – being able to time their arrival at ports such as Rotterdam to plus or minus fifteen minutes and unload within hours, makes them very efficient cutting the cost of delivery of a pair of shoes to only add 25p. That is less per ton/mile than it cost to carry coal in barges along English canals at the height of the industrial revolution.

These ships burn 380 tons of this heavy oil each day – that is around 240 barrels – each day. Ships now have to change to a lighter fuel when it near ports, or in rivers. So that the heavy fall out of black carbon does not fall on populated areas. Fine but we have heard so much of late about the Artic ice melt, and how now the North West Passage has become much more accessible to ships now sailing across the roof of the world for much of the summer – large modern ice breakers have helped to keep these sea lanes open for longer seasons too.

This means that many container ships are plying much closer to the ice packs than ever before and that black carbon laden with sulphur is not falling on the open sea, or going into the atmosphere but landing on the artic ice causing it to melt at a far higher rate than air pollution alone. We now have seventeen to twenty per cent of black carbon from shipping falling on the Artic ice cap. Shipping across the roof of the world has increased; eighty per cent now use the North West Passage for the cost of sea time is dramatically reduced. This has been used by shipping companies as a get-out-of-jail card – sea time is cut – therefore we are polluting less. However, the pollution they are causing is not out at sea but is now on the land (or ice to be more precise).

Ships now travel under ‘Flags of Convenience’ – so don’t expect such countries to do anything to stop shipping companies using heavy oil, and out with the laws and control of any country other than international law ship owners will always opt for the cheapest fuel (50% cheaper).

I had always thought that the G7 – G whatever and Davos were all about sorting out such problems in and around the world, but alas no, they spent all their time trying to persuade EU countries to escalate the war in Ukraine by shipping modern tanks into an already overheated situation.

As the Polar Ice Cap recedes, more and more open water will be available for shipping – already at eighty per cent. Most of this water will be Russian – now making noises about putting a levy on ships passing through its waters, since they are the ones keeping the passageways open with their, large modern icebreakers (which makes you wonder about the rhetoric behind America’s proxy war in Ukraine).  

There are of course alternatives to heavy oil, but nothing is going to change until international law forces change.

What are we thinking? Would 23p on a pair of shoes – drive us into poverty? Stopping the use of heavy oil at sea would give the Ice Cap breathing space for us to make the changes necessary over air prolusion.

Fact: one container ship puts more Sulphur into the atmosphere in one trip from China to Rotterdam than all the cars on the planet do in one year. Car engines are so efficient now that they are practically free of pollution – as you know when you go for an MOT. Modern cars are fitted with catalytic converters, reducing emissions even further. We really need to stop talking about e-cars as the saviour of the planet, and start to tackle the real causes of global warming – ships – military vehicles (exempt from the figures).

Shipping from early times has kept world trade afloat – now is shipping threatening to sink our world?

Well, must go, to Met Opera this afternoon – Fedora.

Stay safe.


4 thoughts on “Shipping from early times has kept world trade afloat – now is shipping threatening to sink our world?

  1. I’ve read that hydrogen power for large ships is an answer (depending on source of H2 of course!). also that the bigger the ship the more fuel/carbon efficient they are…. compared to freighting everything by air. It is bewildering. Perhaps we need to learn to make our own shoes! Hope you enjoyed the opera – we all need some light relief these days.


    1. I did thanks but should have taken my box of tissues. Hydrogen sound great – let’s do that – have you any idea how many ships there are our there – thousands – chicken and egg again – who picks up the Bill? However, much easier to get rid of heavy oil now, and try to start the process of stopping the ice cap melting at the rate that it is doing now.


      1. Aye nothing’s simple! I hope the tissues were needed because the opera was moving not because you’ve caught a cold!


  2. It really is simple if we put our minds to it – read about how Hong Kong knew that the lease would run out in 8 years and suspected that the Chinese government would not consider a new airport for Hong Kong as a priority and decided to do it before the handover. they built a tunnel under Victoria Harbour (one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world) built a bridge out to the island that could carry rail and road then to top it off lopped the top of a mountain on the island and built a new airport, and all within the 8-year time frame – it can be done – sadly we have a system of government that took 20 years to get a bypass around a congested part of Aberdeen and cost millions in lawyer fees for objections to it being built – I don’t believe they have such problems in China.


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