How ethical is shipping goods by sea?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How ethical is shipping goods by sea?” was written by Lucy Siegle, for theguardian.com on Sunday 2nd November 2014 06.00 UTC

Shipping, the servant of global trade, has a massive environmental footprint. Typically 90% of what we consume in the UK has been imported; most is shipped. We’re not just talking consumer goods – TVs, iPhones, trainers – but also dry bulk goods, from grain to timber and coal for power stations. The industry is responsible for 1bn tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year (similar to the emissions of Germany).

Still, shipping is better than air freight. A Defra study concludes that 2 tonnes of freight carried for 5,000km by a small container ship creates 150kg of CO2e (a measure of relative global warming potential) compared to 6,605kg of CO2e if the freight is carried by plane for the same distance. A clear difference.

It is unlikely that any importer – and therefore any consumer – can guarantee a “small” ship (the vogue is for huge cargo ships, which use more fuel). Nor can we confirm the route: some shipping lines avoid emission-control areas established in an effort to combat sulphur emissions.

There are greener ships. In 2009, a solar-powered container ship made its maiden voyage. But given the enormous capital investment tied up in a ship – and that there’s a five-year lead time on cleaner, greener versions – owners are loathe to scrap old ships.

Still, between 2007 and 2012 we saw a dip in emissions: after the recession containers slowed down to save on fuel. Pre-economic crash a cargo ship typically travelled at 24 knots, and post crash 16 knots. But now, with economic recovery, it’s full steam ahead. Greenhouse gas emissions from shipping might rise by 250% by 2050.

There’s a massive social justice story emerging here, too. The 2006 Maritime Labour Convention established universal rights for seafarers, but they remain among the most vulnerable group of workers. There’s not much access to lawyers and doctors at sea and the practice of registering ships under flag states with lower human-rights standards persists.

For something so important to us (for a surprisingly thrilling rundown of containers, read The Box by Marc Levinson), it’s unbelievable that these ships are such shadowy facilitators of our consumerist lives. Imported goods, therefore, have a gap in their supply chain. We all need to engage not just with who produces our goods (the mantra of fairly traded goods) but also who brought them to us.

Green crush

Ethiopian coffee growers.
Ethiopian coffee growers. Photograph: Steve McCurry/PR

Photographer Steve McCurry captures ‘Earth Defenders’ for the 2015 calendar from coffee brand Lavazza and Slow Food. Each picture depicts a community defending land and a way of food production, from the women on the Fadiouth Island in Senegal who produce couscous to those in the Kafa region of Ethiopia producing coffee (pictured) and the schoolchildren of coffee farmers in Tanzania. ‘Recognise the value of food,’ says Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. ‘It is not sustainable to consume food recklessly, without looking at what lies behind the product. We can no longer tolerate that communities in Africa are denied their own food sovereignty.’ All of the proceeds go to create 10,000 food gardens in African schools and villages by the end of 2016. calendar2015.lavazza.com

Greenspeak: airpocalypse {a’püklīps} noun

Used by Beijing residents to describe air quality. In China air pollution is thought to kill 350,000 a year. It’s spawned airpocalypse products, including a beer the price of which is linked to the pollution index.

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