British Columbia

Policies and technology need updating for eco-friendlier shipping, says researcher

With Christmas behind us and the gifts unwrapped, stockings unstuffed and feasts consumed it can be easy to overlook how all the goodies arrived — mainly via shipping.

UBC is leading international research project on maritime supply chain

Roughly 90 per cent of globally traded goods are shipped by ocean vessel. (Ben Margot/ Associated Press)

With Christmas behind us and the gifts unwrapped, stockings unstuffed and feasts consumed, it can be easy to overlook how all the goodies arrived — mainly via shipping.

Roughly 90 per cent of globally traded goods are shipped by ocean vessel, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. But while it is a vital part of the global economy, researchers say shipping also has a significant impact on the environment.

By 2050, estimates say, shipping could account for 17 per cent of global emissions.

"It's hard to look around your living room now and find something that didn't come off of a ship," said Jane Lister, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.  

Lister is the research director in an international project led by UBC to re-evaluate shipping practices and explore ecologically-friendly methods for the industry.

The six year project is in its first year, Lister told CBC guest host of The Early Edition Michelle Eliot, and involves more than a dozen universities as well as NGOs, industry leaders and policy-makers from around the world.

Still a technology gap

The problem right now, Lister explained, is also part of the reason why shipping is so cheap: the vessels burn bunker fuel, the lowest quality diesel fuel. 

It's inexpensive but also dirty in terms of particulate and carbon emissions, she said. 

Water and land ecosystems are also impacted when, for example, ballast water introduces invasive species or ship noise impacts underwater mammals, she added. 

"It's a hard industry to regulate because it's global and most of the operation is in the open sea," Lister said. "It's very important to have uniform standards."

Right now, the research group is focusing on governance and policies.

"There are challenges in terms of regional and local differences in policy and we want to try to address that," she said. 

The researchers are comparing best practices around the world and looking at different ways to encourage greener shipping like zero-emission ports, improved fuel efficiency and emission control systems on board ships.

"We are seeing technology innovation," she said. "But there is still a technology gap which is going to need to be addressed."

To hear more, click on the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition.