Reducing Emissions From Heavy Trucks And Ships Critical To Sustainability

Electric cars may be an important part of reducing global emissions but they are only a small part of the problem. Greenhouse gasses including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxide from ships and heavy trucks exceed the emissions from all the hundreds of millions of passenger vehicles in the world today by a wide margin. In order to slow climate change and global warming, it will be necessary to severely restrict or eliminate emissions from those sources.

emissions from shipping

First, a little perspective on the problem. Ocean going ships burn something called bunker oil. What is it, exactly? It’s the thick, tarry goo that is left over after refiners are done making crude oil into gasoline, diesel, heating oil, jet fuel, and the feedstocks that become the myriad array of plastics the world can’t live without. It is so thick, it will not flow unless heated and it is chock full of toxic substances which escape into the atmosphere.

Edward Humes has written a book entitled Door To Door. It details the actual cost of shipping everything from coffee bean to cars from their source to the the end user. Earlier this year, Humes told NPR that just 160 large container ships create more emissions than all the cars in the world combined. That’s bad news for the environment.

What makes the bad news into a catastrophe is that there are more than 6000 cargo ships plying back and forth across the oceans of the world today. Do the math. Ocean shipping puts 375 times more pollutants into the atmosphere every year than all the cars in all the countries in the world combined. But you won’t see those statistics reflected anywhere. The vast majority of those emissions take place on the high seas and are not included in the official emissions tally for any one nation. It is an invisible problem that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year and millions of negative health outcomes worldwide.

Once the containers arrive in port, heavy duty trucks take over the task of hauling them to market. Virtually all of those trucks are powered by diesel engines. Because diesels are so robust, they can remain in service for 12 to 20 years. Most of the diesel trucks in use around the world have rudimentary emissions controls or none at all. The US Department of Transportation says that light, medium, and heavy duty trucks account for 48% of all vehicle emissions. Some of those light duty trucks are pickups used for personal transportation but some are work vehicles used by delivery companies and tradespeople.

emissions by source
U.S. Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Source, 2006 (all gases, in Tg CO2 equivalent)

Elon Musk is to be congratulated for focusing the world’s attention on electric cars, but if the objective is to dramatically reduce emissions from transportation, society urgently needs to address emissions from trucks and ships. Fortunately Musk is proposing to do precisely that by building an electric pickup truck and a freight hauling tractor as part of his Master Plan Part Deux.

The transition from conventional cars to electric cars has been painfully slow. National, state, and local governments have tried an array of financial and non-financial incentives, but electric car sales have just not taken off yet. When it comes to shipping and trucks, however, the profit motive will the factor that encourages the adoption of clean technology. Electric vehicles cost less to operate and maintain. That’s the kind of news that gets the attention of fleet managers. It’s not about saving the earth or being a good corporate citizen any more. It’s about increasing profits by using the most efficient vehicles available.

The International Maritime Organisation this fall announced new rules that will reduce the amount of sulfur in the fuel cargo ships burn from 3.5% to 0.5%. That will raise the cost of fuel but that increase will be offset by lower maintenance costs for cleaner burning engines. Liquid natural gas has been shown to reduce ship emissions by 30%. It’s still a fossil fuel but it burns much cleaner than bunker oil without the harmful nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide created by conventional ship engines. Norway is pioneering the use of electric and plug-in hybrid ferries and coastal shipping.

Short haul freight operations will eventually embrace zero and low emissions strategies. It is transporting cargo across oceans and continents in ways that reduce or eliminate emissions that is the holy grail for clean tech in the future. The world has to solve that problem or give up on the idea of international trade. The key to the future is making clean technology less expensive than conventional transportation just as solar power is now cheaper than electricity from any other source. If new technologies can be found that save shippers money, the rest will follow as night follows day.

This article is part of the 2017 Masdar blogging competition, which aims to find what innovations people believe will have the most impact over the next ten years.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.