The American Waterways Operators has announced it is a founding member of a maritime coalition called the Blue Sky Maritime Coalition, a non-profit alliance of maritime stakeholders across North America committed to addressing climate change and achieving a commercially viable net-zero greenhouse gas emissions marine transportation sector. The international blue-water maritime sector has been pursuing net-zero for years, led by the International Maritime Organization. While we can’t help but point out again that the inland waterways sector is already the greenest form of transportation per ton-mile, more can be done.
According to Alok Sharma, president-designate of COP26, “To keep the temperature of the planet under control—limiting its increase to 1.5 degrees—the science dictates that by the second half of the century, we should be producing less carbon than we take out of the atmosphere. This is what reaching ‘net zero’ means.” COP26 stands for the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, or the U.N. Climate Change Conference to be held November 1-12 this year in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Paris Agreement, which had countries making voluntary commitments to carbon emission reductions, was forged at COP21 in 2015. It’s the run-up to COP26 that is accelerating so much activity. Since the November elections, the U.S. has an administration firmly committed to combatting climate change as part of all its initiatives.
In his 2017 book Energy and Civilization, the celebrated energy historian Vaclav Smil looks at history through the lens of energy use. There have been many energy transitions throughout history, from muscle power to animal power, then to water and wind, from burning mostly wood and biomass to burning coal, and from coal to oil and then natural gas and nuclear. Smil concludes his book with a sober look at the possibilities of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “[T]he most important consequence of the high-energy era has been the unprecedented degree of affluence and the improving quality of life,” writes Smil. “Only the rising consumption of fossil energies has been able to satisfy so many material desires on such a large scale.”
All of the previous energy transitions have been from less-dense to more-dense forms of energy—that is, to forms of energy that are more efficient, that produce more units of output for a unit of input. From the point of view of energy density, the next logical step would be a greater focus on nuclear, which emits zero carbon, and some argue that a transition away from fossil fuels to meet stated net-zero goals is impossible without that commitment. Without more nuclear plants, the transition will be from more-dense to less-dense renewable energy forms.
Is such a transition really possible without massive disruptions? Smil notes that with a few local exceptions (such as the Netherlands quickly switching from coal to natural gas after the discovery of a huge gas field), energy transitions typically take at least a couple of generations.
When even oil companies commit to net-zero goals and tout their commitment to fighting climate change, it’s clear that an opinion threshold has been crossed. With so many governments committed to acting, companies are hastening to make sure they have a seat at the table and can have input into any regulations that are sure to affect them. It’s essential that organizations like the Blue Sky Maritime Coalition take careful looks at the risks and possibilities involved for our industry.