New research has shown that reducing operational speed of ships has a direct impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Other benefits of slow steaming include protecting marine life, providing a boost to jobs and growth in shipbuilding nations and reducing fuel costs. But not everyone in the industry is as keen as Transport & Environment (T&E), which commissioned the study, on mandatory speed reductions.

Shipping GHG emissions are rising sharply; between 2013-2015 they increased by 2.4% and between 2012-2050 they are projected to rise by 20-120%. It’s a trend that needs to be reversed soon if the shipping sector is to contribute to the Paris Agreement and reduce its emissions down to zero in the second half of the century.

While the industry is counting on the use of alternative fuels to achieve this goal in the long term – indeed clean fuels are the only way to reduce GHG emissions to zero – short-term measures are also important, as they have the potential to preserve shipping’s carbon budget and buy time to develop effective, long-term decarbonisation solutions.

Buying the industry valuable time

Mandatory speed reductions, as outlined in a recent study commissioned by T&E, which represents 53 organisations from 26 European countries working for sustainable transport policies, and carried out by environmental research organisation CE Delft, are one such possible measure.

By reducing bunker consumption through the implementation of a mandatory speed reduction of three ship types – container ships, bulk carriers and tankers – GHG emissions could be reduced by a third, the research reveals.

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“The study also suggests that slow steaming could cut fuel costs and provide an economic boost to shipbuilding nations.”

“If no immediate measures, like slow steaming, are introduced and the world is to remain below 1.5 degrees global temperature rise, the sector needs to be fully decarbonised by 2030. But if we introduce speed reductions of 30% between 2018-2030, we can extend this timeline by an additional six years,” says Faig Abbasov, shipping officer at T&E, a founding member of the Clean Shipping Coalition (CSC).

“You would have about six more years to use exactly the same carbon budget and that’s only by slowing down three ship types. We could actually do much better if we applied slow steaming to the entire fleet.”

On top of reducing GHG emissions, the study also suggests that slow steaming could cut fuel costs and provide an economic boost to shipbuilding nations – slower speeds equal more ships in the long run – as well as helping to protect marine life.

For example, acoustic disturbance can impact whales’ ability to feed, communicate, rest and locate their prey and lower speeds mean lower noise levels, as well as fewer collisions. A separate study is currently in progress in Vancouver, Canada, which is home to the endangered southern resident killer whale, to test the relationship between ship speed and noise pollution.

Concerns with slow steaming

The concept of slow steaming is not without its drawbacks, however, not least for countries that are located far away from their main export markets. “This was one of the concerns raised by the industry and we are now looking into the concept of route-based speed reduction – i.e. countries at the end of long lines of communication could slow down less than countries with shorter distances to their main markets,” Abbasov explains.

There are also questions over how speed regulations would work – for example, would they be based on maximum speeds or average speeds – and just how much of a reduction there would be.

“The main challenge would be to set the speed regulation at the right level because if you reduce speed too fast or let it decline too steeply, there would be a shortage of transport supply – basically a shortage of ships,” notes Jasper Faber, an aviation and maritime specialist at CE Delft.

“If you reduce the number of ships, you reduce the capacity of those ships to deliver transport work and then you could have a situation like in 2006-2007 where demand was too high and freight rates increased dramatically. At that time, it was a physical shortage of ships; this time it would be a regulatory shortage.”

Dr Kostas Gkonis, secretary general of the International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (INTERCARGO) believes that closer investigation of the environmental impact of slow steaming is also necessary. “When it comes to GHG emissions, one would need to factor in the extra emissions from the shipbuilding activity for constructing these ships. More emissions would also result from steel production, but also mining and transporting coal for the shipbuilding purposes,” he says.

“Basic estimations indicate that the additional GHG emissions would be more than the GHG emissions’ reduction achieved by imposing reduced sailing speeds. Also, if maritime transport gets slower and less attractive, the effect of modal shift (i.e. cargoes switching) to more pollutive and less energy efficient land transportation modes should be seriously considered.”

No consensus yet

At present, the shipping industry is the only international sector that has yet to commit to a global emissions reduction target or measures, but this is set to change in April when the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee releases the first version of its GHG emissions strategy, including a list of short, medium and long-term measures.

T&E’s hope is that one of the former will be mandatory speed reductions, which would then lead to substantial discussions on slow steaming in 2018 and implementation from 2021 onwards.

“We don’t see any key issues that would stand in the way of speed regulations if there is a political will to implement them, but at present there is no consensus or any agreement that this will be the case,” Abbasov says, adding that any regulation that was implemented would certainly include an alternative compliance method. “If some ships wanted to switch to zero carbon technologies, they would be free to sail their ships at whatever speed they want.”

An alternative option

Historically, ships have slowed down and sped up depending on market forces and taking into account fuel costs and freight rates, and for Kostas, this is exactly how things should continue.

“Slow steaming (as a result of free choice of sailing speed and as dictated by rational decision-making) is in line with the market forces minimising transportation costs,” he believes. “We have witnessed the benefits of slow steaming as a result of market conditions in the last few years and its positive impact on emissions; there is no doubt in this respect.”

“Imposing a tax on fuel would be a better way to encourage “environmentally friendly and efficient slow steaming”.”

It’s the idea of imposing speed limits with which he doesn’t agree. “The absence of ‘speed limits’ allows a ship to speed up during boom market periods. This is desirable, otherwise the market would necessitate extra shipping capacity by building more ships in a wasteful and inefficient way,” he says.

Instead, he proposes that imposing a tax on fuel would be a better way to encourage “environmentally friendly and efficient slow steaming”.

“A fuel levy would slow an ‘inefficient’ ship more than a fuel-efficient ship,” he says. “The bunker levy option is practically the only market-based measure that can stand serious consideration as a global measure.”