Age of sail returns for green cargo ships

Cargo ship with sail attached Ships are being adapted to help them use less fuel - including a return to windpower

What's that vast kite doing, way out at sea?

Well, it's not a kite, but a sail - and it's pulling along a gigantic, modern, ocean-going bulk carrier.

Cargill, one of the world's biggest transporters of foodstuffs, is going to be fitting sails to some vessels from next year. And with oil prices sky high, it's perfect timing.

It's also a good time to be more environmentally friendly, with Emissions Control Areas coming into force in major shipping lanes - such as the coasts of North America and off western Europe.

Shipping is responsible for nearly 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions - twice the output from aviation - and it's a figure that has doubled in the last 20 years.

That's why companies like BP, Rio Tinto and Gearbulk have joined green groups like WWF in London, to sketch out a future where ships use less fossil fuel in getting goods to our factories and homes.

Course change ahead

"The world is changing - the industry is changing," says Anne Marie Warris. She's an environmental adviser to Lloyds Register - the institution that's been testing the seaworthiness of ships globally for 250 years - and the venue for this conference.

Ninety per cent of world trade is moved by ship - and Ms Warris sees a future where more goods are sent by sea, whatever the price of oil.

View from the bridge of a shipping vessel View from the bridge: Companies are looking at greener ways for modern shipping

"The increase in the number of Asian people who become middle class will mean an increase in demand for goods and services. So we need a way to balance the needs of people, planet and profit."

So, how to ship more, but use fewer finite resources?

In Denmark, the global shipping company Maersk is already taking practical steps to reduce its environmental impact. Some ideas are simple, some are initially expensive.

Soren Stig Nielsen of Maersk describes some: "We're steaming at a slower speed, investing in new technologies - like recycling the waste heat from the engine, and we're improving the design of ships' hulls."

But does that mean a threat to the makers of existing ship gear?

Only if you stand still, says Vesa-Pekka Virkki. He's a business development director at the Finish company Wärtsilä, which makes engines and propellers for two out of three cargo ships afloat.

"I don't think there's a substitute for ships, or for engines either. Yes, there's now liquid natural gas as a fuel or windpower or solar - but you still need to convert that into motion. We have to make that happen."

Fuel for thought

Talking to the people pledging their names to the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, it's clear that there is a real commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a definite sense that this industry is at a turning point. However the prime motivation is less clear.

Are ship builders, owners and users and banks such as Morgan Stanley and ABN Amro co-operating because they're concerned about the climate, or is it more about the price of crude oil?

Jonathan Porritt, director of Forum for the Future, doesn't think it's as cynical as that.

"Companies realise we're heading for a different place, where they create value for shareholders, for people and for society by producing the things that people want with a far lower impact on the natural world, our communities and our way of life," he says.

But it doesn't mean that the oil price rise is insignificant.

Ms Warris from LLoyds Register says businesses are concerned by "what this might mean for them in the future".

"Specifically about how they're going to recover the cost [of higher fuel prices], and whether you or I as consumers are going to be prepared to pay for that increased cost. And what that means for their bottom line."

We've seen our big energy companies fall in and out of love with green technology projects in recent years. It's possible that the Sustainable Shipping Initiative could yet be wrecked.

But it's more likely that there's going to be a convergence between two courses ahead. One driven by the need to reduce running costs, and one driven by the need to reduce pollution at sea.

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