19 Dec 2022

To Reach Net-Zero, We Need to Talk About the Maritime Industry


Genevieve Olsen

When we think about reducing GHG emissions, we often think of what’s on land or in the air. But what about the sea? The maritime shipping industry is often overlooked by the public, but is responsible for 2-3% of GHG emissions, as well as harm to marine ecosystems. Environmental damage and human rights abuses have continued in part due to how difficult it is to enforce laws that protect both the people working at sea and the environment in international waters. Enforcement of rules and regulations is often lax and compliance inspections are not performed authentically by neutral party investigators. Corruption is common throughout the international shipping and fishing industry. These issues are complex, but thanks to cohesive, collaborative efforts between stakeholders, innovation experts, and leaders across the supply chain, the maritime industry is moving in the right direction for human and environmental rights. 

Area 1: Human Rights: slave labor, labor-rights violations, child labor, and gender-based discrimination and harassment:

Most maritime human rights abuses occur away from the public eye. The types of labor abuses range from illegal shipbreaking work, forced labor at sea, withholding adequate pay and medical care, and crew abandonment. These practices have a long history but were exacerbated during the COVID-19 lockdown. In 2020, over 400,000 seafarers on cargo ships were stranded at sea, which only worsened working conditions. 

Outside of explicitly forced labor, which is defined by the ILO Forced Labor Convention as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily,” labor practices in the seafaring sector often place vulnerable people into exploitative situations. For instance, forced labor is especially well documented among commercial Thai fishing boats in the South China Sea and surrounding territory. Firsthand accounts report the poor living conditions laborers were subjected to: “the Thai skipper regularly beat the crew with an iron rod and threatened them at gunpoint. ‘Payment’ was meager amounts of food, withheld if the skipper did not think the crew had worked hard enough. Some men became malnourished and seriously ill … one crew member became so sick he could no longer work.”

One of the most egregious examples of labor violations is the work required in shipbreaking. Breaking apart a ship designed to survive the high seas is extremely challenging, physically straining, and comes with very low wages. Laborers mostly work with very minimal protective equipment, in extreme temperatures and rough weather. 85% of shipbreaking activities occur in Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, and India because these countries have some of the most lax labor laws and some of the most ideally angled shores for beaching ships. Most shipping companies will hand off their ships to shipbreaking contractors after 11-15 years of service. Old ships slowly arrive at these shores, leaving the local community responsible for managing the dismantlement of the ship and handling the release of toxic chemicals and fluids into the surrounding area. 

The shipbreaking sector urgently needs social and environmental reform. Current labor laws and shipbreaking companies provide little to no labor protection for shipbreaking workers. Shipbreaking is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world with an unacceptably high mortality rate. Laborers often work with heavy, dangerous equipment with little to no personal protective equipment (PPE). Dangerous chemical and fuel leaks threaten the health of laborers and the surrounding community. Many international and regional legal conventions have created rules and regulations determining the proper management of shipbreaking and hazardous waste management like the Basil Conventions’ “Technical Guidelines for the Environmentally Sound Management of the Full and Partial Dismantling of End-of-life-ships” published in 2002, and the International Labor Organization’s guidelines on occupational safety and health in shipbreaking operations. However, it’s easy enough for shipping companies to avoid following these guidelines and avoid punishment. Fortunately, technological solutions for reducing environmental harm in this sector are advancing.

It can also be particularly difficult to determine which goods are procured via forced labor. For the seafood industry, it can be particularly challenging to separate fish that were caught or processed legally vs illegally. This is because all caught fish are dumped in the same mother ship for processing and become untraceable. However, remediations to this are being developed: for instance, through high-tech data collection and tracing, voluntary Catch Documentation Schemes (CDS) are being introduced as a solution to ensure seafood is captured in compliance with human rights regulations and fishing standards. However, more work is needed since such technological innovations are newly emerging and have not yet been universally adopted. Underlying technical challenges continue to be a hurdle which include the ability to falsify records and cost implications. 

Area 2: GHG Emissions and other pollutants  

The maritime trade industry is a significant contributor to climate change and therefore must be included in global decarbonization efforts. According to Oceana Europe, “if global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions”. The major GHGs emitted by the shipping industry are CO2, Black Carbon (aka Soot/ BC), and Nitrous Oxides (NOx). Nitrous Oxides are 300 times as strong as a molecule of CO2 in terms of its global warming potential.

The maritime industry has recognized that switching to renewable fuels is both achievable and cost-effective in the long run but requires some strategic planning. Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), which can substantially reduce the release of air pollutants like sulfur oxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides compared to traditional fossil fuels, is being explored as a transitional fuel for lowering emissions. Once ships using LNG are in use, Renewable Natural Gas (RNG)  produced from biomass and synthetic methane can be easily added to the mix. These LNG fuel networks are rapidly evolving on existing transport routes. According to a study performed by IRENA (The International Renewable Energy Agency), “the case for the shipping sector to adopt Liquefied Bio Methane (LBM) as a renewable fuel of choice is strong”, and allows for the potential of the shipping sector to be 100% renewable in the short-term if used with other existing energy sources such as nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. 

Shipbreaking threatens local communities and ecosystems through the mismanagement of hazardous waste and chemical leaks from old ships into the bay and shore. One proposed solution to reduce toxic waste is Constructed Beds for shipbreaking. This artificially constructed platform would be made of several layers intended to restrict the concentration of hazardous materials and prevent the spread of these materials into the local environment. Additionally, extended producer responsibility would mandate shipping companies or ship makers to be responsible for the entire life cycle of their product. 

Area 3: Ecosystem Management 

Ships can cause disastrous effects on marine and coastal ecosystems. Ships can introduce species from one area of a coastline or ocean to another. These organisms can become invasive species in their new environment and threaten local ecosystems and food chains. In turn, invasive species also affect human spheres, including “economic impacts, such as the collapse of fish stock, loss of tourism, damage to coastal areas, it can also impact human health via the introduction of pathogens, such as cholera bacteria.”

The movement of organisms mainly happens in two ways: through ballast water that surrounds the cargo hold, which is used to provide stability and maneuverability for the ship. The chamber fills with water, including small organisms from its loading area, and then empties the water when coming to shore at its destination. Organisms can also be transported long distances via biofouling, which is the accumulation of microorganisms, plants, algae, or small animals on the exterior surfaces of the ship. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulates and approves appropriate ballast water management systems by treatment company and country of origin. There’s a range of ballast water treatment options from mechanical, physical, or chemical, and countries are free to use different options under IMO approval. These technologies such as heat treatment, chemical disinfectant, and U.V treatment either kill all the organisms in the water or render them incapable of reproducing. Another important practice for preventing the destruction of marine and coastal ecosystems is anti-fouling systems. This is done by painting the exterior of the ship with a specific type of paint that helps prevent unwanted organisms from latching onto the ship. 

Furthermore, the maritime industry also contributes to ocean acidification via its emissions. This process destroys coral reefs and weakens other coastal organisms such as oysters, clams, and plankton, and mangrove biomes have been destroyed to make way for beached ships to be broken down. Given that these animal and plant populations are essential carbon sinks and provide an array of benefits to coastal communities, their destruction makes coastlines even more vulnerable to the adverse effects of maritime trade. 

In recognition of this problem, the Global Maritime Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission support the idea of fully Decarbonized Green Corridors. This would create shipping routes between two or more ports on which the technological, economic, and regulatory feasibility of the operation of zero-emission shipping is catalyzed through public and private actions. This would reduce environmental impact on a worldwide scale, strengthen trade, and protect marine ecosystems. An important initial step to reduce maritime emissions is to utilize existing structures on ships for renewables. Manufacturing a new, 100% renewable energy-powered ship is very costly and takes time to develop. It is most logical at this time to make do with existing ships already in use by retrofitting green technology onto the structure. Some examples of green retrofitting include installing sails onto yards and masts to maximize the propulsive force of the wind and installing solar PV systems to provide auxiliary propulsion to fuel fixed sails. Retrofitting renewable energy sources onto existing ships and structures is a resourceful short-term solution as it saves resources and money. 

Looking forward:

There has been real progress in decarbonizing the maritime industry, as well as in making it more socially responsible. Even though technical innovations provide solutions to many environmental and social maritime issues, these problems persist. In the future, fuel producers, vessel operators, cargo owners, regulatory authorities, and stakeholders all have a role to play in efficiently improving industry gaps. Coordinated participation from shipping companies, source countries, receiving countries, consumers, and international governmental organizations is crucial for meaningful transformation 

Decarbonization efforts and environmental protections affect every sector of the economy and maritime trade must not be overlooked. Every industry has a role to play in decarbonization, promoting environmental protection, and establishing social equity. The maritime trade industry is not exempt from ESG strategy. The rise in global shipping necessitates a cohesive plan for making the maritime trade industry more sustainable, ethical, and environmentally friendly for the millions of people working within this industry, marine life and ocean ecosystems, and the global climate.

  • Supply Chain