Ocean speed limits could yield huge benefits for conservation & climate change

A new report has shown that reducing the speed of big container ships on the ocean could reduce harmful emissions, cut marine noise pollution and save companies a lot of money. Not only is this a win-win for everyone involved, but it could also happen in the very near future.

aerial ship view
A massive container ship pictured from above, moving its cargo across the ocean as fast as it can

The best solutions to environmental issues are relatively simple, easy to implement, don’t cost too much and are universally accepted by all parties involved. Unfortunately these solutions can be very hard to come by and implement in the real world. But a new report has shown that placing a speed limit on large container ships could be one of those very simple yet effective solutions. It shows that a relatively small reduction in the speed of ships could lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and toxic pollutants. Less noise pollution from engines which could help prevent collisions with whales. As well as big financial savings for shipping companies that will use less fuel. But not only is this a great idea, it could also be very close to actually happening. This week UN negotiators are in London discussing the speed limits and how they can put them in action.

Current shipping

Shipping is something that is rarely talked about in environmental conversations because most people just don’t understand the scale of the industry and the impact it has on their lives. It is a classic example of the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality of the modern world. But shipping is actually responsible for 80% of the transportation of goods around the globe. Making it one of the biggest and most profitable industries on the planet. It is also responsible for 3% of global greenhouse emissions, which is the same as some countries like Germany. Yet surprisingly the industry is not bound by any treaty or legal agreement to curb its emissions. However most shipping companies now agree that they have a responsibility to make serious changes.

black smoke
The thick black smoke from a container ship includes green house gases, unburned carbon and toxic nitrus and sulphur oxides

Not only are big ships producing high levels of greenhouse gases, but they also produce very harmful pollutants such as nitrus and sulphur oxides. As well as black carbon, which are tiny pieces of unburned carbon that can be ingested by humans. But something that has gone even more unnoticed is the environmental impacts they can have in the marine world. The biggest of those being marine noise pollution that can seriously impact marine animals such as whales who often collide with vessels because of it. As well as other animals like dolphins, seals, turtles and manatees can also be seriously affected. But container ships are also linked to problems like plastic pollution, oil spills and ocean acidification.

Slowing down

All in all the shipping industry can be quite damaging for lots of people and the planet as a whole. But a new study has shown that simply slowing down the ships could go a long way to mitigating these problems. The report, commissioned by Seas at Risk and Transport & Environment, has shown that just a 20% reduction in speed could be universally beneficial. It would reduce greenhouse emissions and toxic chemicals by 24%, because significantly less fuel would be used up. Given that the industry contributes to 3% of global emissions this could effectively knock-off almost half a percent from the global output, which is significant for such a small action. But less fuel also means less money being spent which could save companies millions if not billions in the long run.

back of ship
Slowing down a cargo ship can help mitigate almost all the problems they currently create

But without a doubt the biggest winners from a speed reduction would be marine life. The report shows that a 20% speed reduction could cut marine noise pollution by as much as 66%. Which amazingly could reduce collisions between whales and vessels by as much as 78%. Not only do slower ships produce less noise (and kill less whales), but it also reduces the frequency range of the sound, reducing the number of species affected by things like hearing loss. Whilst this all sounds great in principal it is easy to be sceptical at the same time. But although a lot these benefits seem fairly theoretical and optimistic, we have actually seen most of them before. During the start of the economic crash in 2008 shipping companies actually started reducing the speed of their ships for a few months to save money. This gave scientists the opportunity to study the effects and figure out what would happen if we could make the change permanent. So the science behind the study is actually very reliable.

Is it enforceable?

For most of human history regulating shipping whether it be piracy, slave trading or transporting goods has been extremely challenging. But nowadays it is much easier with advancements in technology. For example most if not all big container ships today are tracked across the oceans using GPS transponders. Using this technology it is actually very easy to determine how fast a vessel is going on the high seas. So catching people who are breaking speed limits is actually not the problem. The big issue is how you encourage or force people to abide by them in the first place. The main way you can do this is with new laws, but because the open ocean is international territory those laws must be set by big global bodies which can be problematic. The punishment for breaking those laws also has to be sufficient enough to scare off big corporations from doing it. But actually most companies are already behind the idea, having been shown just how beneficial it would be for them as well as the planet. So enforcement actually might not be an issue at all.

How likely is it to happen?

Although the idea of an ocean speed limit is actually largely backed by shipping companies there are still of course people who oppose it. Slower ships mean less goods can be moved in the same amount of time which means you can make less money. Of course you can make that up by saving on fuel, but that’s not necessarily how some big corporations think. But luckily those that oppose the speed restrictions could be about to have their hands tied forever, as negotiations are already underway to make them law. This week in London the International Maritime Organisation Marine Environmental Protection Committee International Working Group (commonly referred to as IMO for obvious reasons) are meeting to discuss the plans to make these speed reductions maritime law.

speed limit sign
Maritime speed limits for the shipping industry could come into effect very soon

Due to the scientific evidence available to the IMO and the wiliness of most shipping companies to play ball it seems like there is very good chance that these laws will be passed. It would be fantastic if they are, not just because of the environmental issues involved but also because of what it represents. Global speed limits are a simple yet effective idea that really benefits everybody. Sea At Risk’s John Maggs told Oceanographic magazine that they are “the closest thing to a silver bullet the IMO will ever see”. But that hasn’t stopped similar ideas being scrapped due to political and business interests before. For once it seems like the global bodies are listening to the scientific advice and just getting on with it. If we are to solve other major environmental problems then it is the sort of behaviour we will need to see more of.


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