Tack to the Future.

But which tack has right of way?

Sail Cargo, the idea that using wind power for transport still (or again) makes sense, is often greeted with a condescending grin and the suggestion that it is a romantic idea that it is a wonderfully impractical nonsolution to a problem most of us do not realise that we have. I mean, really, why would anyone care about what happens way out there at sea?

There are a number of reasons why it might be and should be important what happens all the way out there. Whether it is black carbon accelerating polar ice melt, increased deaths along coastlines from heavy bunker fuel use, labour abuse of ship workers, the fact that somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of commerce crosses oceans, the logistical logjams that are arising as exemplified by the Ever Given situation of early 2021, the fact that shipping is excluded from greenhouse gas calculations but has a proportion (around 2.5%) that places it above Germany and Iran and below Japan; there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about shipping.

In a world ruled by nation states, individually and in coalitions, there are issues surrounding the fact that nation states are land based and thus the high seas are not directly governed. The nations have come together to create some legal frameworks over the past couple of centuries, such as the rules for preventing collisions at sea (COLREGS) and pollution regulations (MARPOL). There is also a long standing collection of laws and lore that helps deal with the situations of mariners, from rescue compulsions to the General Average. In order to bring some more structure, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was created in 1948 in order to discuss and decide what the law of the sea should be. The IMO is a complex beast: an advisor to the UN, the governing body of the maritime industry run by the maritime industry itself, an opaque collection of flag state operators. The IMO has lobbied for shipping’s greenhouse gas emissions not to be included in any countries’ sum. It has finally brought in lower SOx rules for bunker fuel. The IMO deliberates amongst itself but many NGOs and other organisations have the right to watch but remain silent, the so-called “observer status.” Organisations such as OPEC, the African Union, and the International Organisation for Migration have observer status, which might, to use the phrase of the Australian politician Don Chipp, “keep the bastards honest.” One of the organisations with observer status is the IWSA, the International Windship Association. This a a small but focused industry group bundling the energies of a number of organisations, from small cooperatives and startups to larger groups such as Norpower, Mitsui OSK Lines and Marin, who are interested in having a coherent voice in larger negotiations. The members of IWSA include university departments and naval architects, operating sail cargo companies, industrial service providers and cultural groups.

A recent paper, “Tack to the future: is wind propulsion an ecomodernist or degrowth way to decarbonise maritime cargo transport?” from Christiaan de Beukelaer, investigates the issues from the perspective of public and political policy through the lens of green house gas emissions. We have two main factors to consider, using his analysis: the intensity of emissions, the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted per tonne-kilometre of transport (that is, moving one tonne one kilometre). The second is the amount moved, how many tonnes get moved how many kilometres. In the general scale of transport, shipping is by far the most efficient in terms of having the lowest intensity of emissions and in terms of costs in many metrics. It is the quantity moved that is perhaps the major issue: we move a lot of things a long way by ship, much as that is beginning to change.

The calculation is pretty simple, being a simplification of Japanese economist’s Yoichi Kaya’s emissions calculation. We combine Kaya’s first two factors, population and GDP per capita into a factor for the quantity of “stuff” we move and his energy intensity and carbon footprint factors to a single carbon intensity:

total emissions = quantity x intensity

As a mathematician, given that we are using numbers here, we know that zero emissions would require one (or both) of the factors on the right hand side to be zero. So either intensity would be zero, which means that the amount of greenhouse gasses must be zero. Or the quantity must be zero, so we do not transport anything anywhere.

Let us entertain this mathematical idea for a moment. Zero intensity can come about with shipping that emits zero GHG. At the moment, this would mean either wind propulsion or electrical propulsion, as the systems for green hydrogen and ammonia as well as biofuels are very underdeveloped. Zero quantity means no trade, no significant transport of goods over significant distances. Neither are likely to be immediately relevant. So let us return to the paper and its thoughts.

De Beukelaer looks at the two possibilities as two forms of policy. The first is an ecomodernist approach, where wind and electric propulsion, but also green hydrogen and ammonia, are investigated as possibilities. The second extreme policy idea that he investigates is that of degrowth, the economic idea that we can reduce or even reverse our growth imperative, with all the concomitant implications of extractavist mindset and cost minimisation compulsion. He comes to the conclusion that neither of these are particularly palatable, and recommends that a mixed policy is necessary, with a short term approach of slow steaming in the 2020s followed by the widespread introduction of low carbon shipping from 2030.

The shipping industry has always been looking at ways to minimise costs and emissions are a sign of the cost of fuel. There has been a move over the decades towards the use of heavy fuel oil, the heaviest fraction of crude oil that is left over after many of the more useful components such as petroleum and diesel have been extracted. Heavy fuel oil is cheap. This is the fuel filled with impurities such as Vanadium and sulphur that lead to many of the polluting effects of ship engine exhaust. Since January 2020 shipping has moved to a lower sulphur content fuel mandate but we are not aware of any changes in the other pollutants found in ship fuel. Another approach has been slow steaming, a policy of not driving the ships as fast as possible from port to port, but maintaining a slower speed in order to use less fuel for the whole journey. It had been observed that ships often race to a destination port only to have to wait at anchor until an allocated arrival and unloading slot can be made available. Better logistics, the use of better algorithms and a policy of “virtual arrivals” have begun to counter this. However the logistics logjam of 2021 has undone much of this improvement, as shippers have scrambled to deliver ever larger amounts of product across oceans, at great speed, but have still run into waiting times with almost 100 ships at anchor outside the Los Angeles harbour at some times in 2021.

In order to play with these scenarios further, we looked at the two factors above, intensity and quantity. Moving away from the point of view of aiming for zero emissions, we can look at more fine differences and various more vague ideas of the extremes. In each case, we can see that currently we have high intensity with heavy fuel oil driving essentially all shipping, and high quantity with anything being transported that can be. Looking at high and low values of these two variables, we obtain four scenarios.

  • High quantity, High intensity: more of the same, high GHG emissions, not meeting the Paris COP goals.
  • Low Quantity, High intensity: less transport, so only that which needs to be transported. Expensive, so most likely a more divided society with those who can and those who cannot afford what has been transported.
  • High quantity, Low intensity: A utopia of technological silver bullets, green growth and a continuation of what we now have, but cleaner.
  • Low quantity, Low intensity: a sail cargo degrowth utopia of localised production, minimal transports, clean propulsion.

One could look at a more graduated analysis of these two variables and place many of the developments and prospective developments along these scales. However that is something for later contemplation: let us consider the four scenarios we have created here as collections of features.

It is clear that the More of the Same scenario is not a place to stay. This scenario is in line with a massive increase in average global temperatures, with all the disruptions that this implies.

The second scenario is perhaps an improvement, but in a direction that is socially unappealing. Leaving those who can afford it the option of having what they want is an ugly degrowth vision, a form of limit and discipline scenario that would be socially and politically undesirable.

The remaining two scenarios are intricately intertwined. However, the advantage of scenario thinking is that one at least pretends, for the sake of investigating the scenarios, that they can be regarded as separate.

The Green Growth scenario is the one that we all would like to imagine as the generally preferred one, where everything is good for everyone. It requires no significant sociopolitical changes, in particular requiring no challenge to the political economy of the shipping industry. This is the model that the US government and others are aiming for, exceeding the demands of the IMO without breaking its model. This is the general model that the IWSA is pushing, where wind assistance can be added to ships in order to bring about fuel efficiencies in order to make enough change. Unfortunately many of the ideas that belong in this corner, away from the IWSA ideas, are based around the creation of a massive green hydrogen or green ammonia industry and the use of these fuels for shipping. De Beukelaer uses the terms magic bullets to describe some of these proposed technologies. Recently we have come to see this approach termed the Australian Way with that countries’ GHG pledges at COP26 being based upon the emergence and success of unproven and nonexistant technologies. There is a certain utopic character to this scenario, there will be technological changes in the (near) future that will make everything work. The phrase kicking the can down the road comes to mind. Perhaps not so much NIMBY as not in my political term.

The Sail Cargo Utopia is differently utopic. It involves a fundamental restructuring of how provisioning works, centered around the work on planetary boundaries that has emerged in the past decades and economic models such as Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. Some of the forms of degrowth that must emerge include getting rid of such ridiculous situations as when fish caught in Scotland are transported to China in refrigerated containers for preparation before being shipped back (frozen again) for sale in Scotland. Other forms of degrowth thinking are more complex, with calculations showing that it is less GHG intensive to ship fresh apples from the southern hemisphere to Europe that to cool locally grown European apples from autumn into the next spring.

As de Beukelaer argues, the steps need to be towards low carbon shipping as soon as possible. Which means something like the arrow in this 2×2 scenario diagram.

Four scenarios based upon the greenhouse gas Intensity of transport and the Quantity of stuff that we transport.

There is an element of babies and bathwater arising here. As many techno optimists note, the amount of change that appears and the effects of those changes can be quite surprising. As Facebook reminds us, not all of the implications are clear from the outset. And then there is JevonsConundrum. And as firefighters know, the first thing is not to get yourself in trouble and become another casualty as you try to fight the fire. The firefighter who has gotten away with running heroically into several buildings so far might keep being lucky, but that is not how we should be arranging our society based on luck and bravado. We slow down when we enter fog on the highway, as we cannot see clearly ahead.

To take on a possibly deranged maritime metaphor, there are two regions of dangerous water in this diagram. One is the inequitable degrowth scenario, the other is the cluster of ideas around the Australian way and magic bullets. By moving away from a 2×2 scenario diagram, we can begin to cluster some of the elements differently.

The cluster around the Sail Cargo Utopia can move closer and be a beacon with which to orient a path. The Ecoclipper and Ceiba sail cargo projects are examples of zero carbon transport and should be accelerated as much as possible as part of the development of extremely low carbon shipping. Existing projects such as Grain de Sail and others help as orientation. Slow steaming and the introduction of more technologies such as the successes with Flettner rotors and the emerging suction sails and hard sails will also be part of this. The IWSA is playing a strong role here already, pushing technologies that assist fuel economy and enhance lower emissions.

These changes will necessitate a lowering of the quantity of material shipped. There will be changes in the industries’ economy as a result, reminiscent of those that are already plaguing it in the current logistics confusion.

These changes, it is arguable, are those that will bring shipping in line with developments necessary for the coming decade, with strong 2030 goals being hoped for and anticipated. Scottish fish will no longer visit China, ridiculously (and unfairly) cheap clothing (with its concomitant social side effects) will become less possible as shipping costs increase.

By slowing down, both metaphorically and literally, society may find ways in which to better develop the magic bullets needed for e.g. carbon capture and storage and other Drawdown techniques. Admitting to and incorporating planetary boundaries will lead to something like Raworth’s Doughnut Economics leading towards a thriving life on a thriving planet. It might even lead back towards the Green Growth scenario, having averted the reefs of magic bullets.

A re-working of the scenarios and elements from above. Some suspicious metaphors.
Wind on Starboard has right of way, then tack towards a thriving planet.

We could add another layer of suspect nautical metaphor here. There is much to indicate that the winds of adversity are blowing from the side of lowering emissions, for many reasons. However your course must lead us there, for there is a very nasty storm brewing in the More of the Same scenario. The way out is fringed by un-navigable waters of Ugly Degrowth on one side and a Blind Green Growth Utopia on the other. Luckily we can take a starboard tack initially in order to get out of the danger zone, our bearings on a Sail Cargo Utopia in order to get us out of trouble. A starboard tack gives us right of way; perhaps we can get clear. Once free of the hazards, some unmarked, we can begin to tack towards a scenario of Thriving Life as we move forward. That part of our course remains uncharted, for we are not aware of the dangers to navigation lying there. But it seems worth exploring.

This note is part of Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA) a artbased research project from the Institute for Design Investigations at the University of Applied Arts Vienna und Time’s Up. It is supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) from Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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