Carbon-free transport is our challenge. Globally.

The shipping sector urgently needs a new paradigm that fosters breakthrough innovations to reduce its environmental footprint. Our challenge is to invent carbon-free transportation to minimize damage to the sea, and by extension - since the world is a system - to the environment.

For several decades now, many manufacturers and boards of directors have chosen to shift production centers overseas for various reasons, backing that move with logistics. This trend mostly relied on sea transport, which is incredibly cost-efficient: sending a container from New York to Le Havre, or from Shanghai to Marseille costs just around $1,000.

A major polluter

Sea transport takes on 90% of the world's goods transportation. But despite significant efforts, it is still a massive polluter: it is indeed responsible for 3% of greenhouse gas emissions and 10 to 20% of fine particles and other polluting substances emissions. This state of affairs led the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in April 2018 to set a rather ambitious goal: a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The problem is that the means considered so far to meet these requirements have had close to no impact.

Ineffective political and technical measures

On the political side, the Helsinki Commission had already formulated a Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) in 2007. It intended to restore the good ecological status of the Baltic marine environment by 2021. A telling example, this joint regional policy (nine countries border this fragile sea), that pushed for actions at the local and national level, has been very limited by its non-binding nature. As a result, oxygen concentrations in this ecosystem are still decreasing on the eve of the deadline.

On the technical side, procedures like changing fuel when approaching port areas to discharge less polluting gases induce considerable additional operating costs. And it's worth mentioning here that nearly 70% of a ship's variable operational costs are fuel-related. Scrubbing smokestacks to purge the fumes is another routine that was introduced lately, but that ends up being practically useless given its low efficiency - and it won't help achieve the objective in time either.

Given that ships' average lifespan ranges from 30 to 40 years, vessels launched in the next few years will still pollute a lot at the end of that period, unless we make drastic changes. Therefore, the alternative that is currently emerging is either to lessen our reliance on transport or to change the way we do it.

Is reducing transport a realistic endeavor?

The first option relates to issues such as relocation of production centers, de-globalization, and industrial sovereignty. These subjects have been at the forefront of the public debate since the COVID-19 health crisis started. But actions in this area can only be undertaken by political entities, who are able (or not, who can tell right now?) to make the best decisions. And dropping the responsibility for dealing with the genuine threat of an unprecedented environmental crisis on politicians' shoulders might involve omitting a crucial fact: we are talking about a very long-term, global effort. No legal constraints, no tariffs, no trade war, no financial sanctions could ever generate enough incentive to reduce the volume of goods transported by 50%.

What about transporting better, i.e., more cleanly?

When it comes to changing the way we transport goods - that is, with cleaner operational methods - innovation labs have a pivotal role to play. First, providing real-life solutions to promote maritime transport modes' sustainability requires generating breakthrough innovation and defining new energy and hydrodynamic paradigms. Since in the realm of engineering, it is the function that drives design, we need to go beyond what we know how to do, and beyond what we can do if we want to create something we have never made before, which is carbon-free transportation.

Some ideas are of significant interest: ships using new fuels (LNG, ammonia...) - carbon-based but much less polluting than fuel oil - are starting to cross the seas. Several players have invested in hydrogen propulsion, while projects for sailing cargo ships are blooming in shipyards. Modeling of ships' behavior depending on sea conditions, winds, and currents to optimize their operation thanks to a dynamic adaptation to sailing conditions are also in the works.

The ever-prevailing economic imperative

But whether they are truly promising or just sources of inspiration, those ideas must all abide by the economic imperative. And to be commercially viable, transport must meet speed and accuracy requirements. A fleet of sailing ships stranded in the middle of the Atlantic because there's no wind is likely to wreak havoc and bring the entire logistics chain, both upstream and downstream, to its knees unless it can self-adjust and timetables become reliable.

For such complex matters, research labs can generate and test concrete, realistic and practical solutions involving all the many variables that come into play. To their partners, these labs provide a testing bed without them ever having to stall their operation. This way, they can also contain research costs and without taking the risk of going down a dead-end. Some changes will impact profitability; others will require significant investments if we want to implement them. All of them need immense freedom of thought and action to imagine technologies whose contours are still indistinguishable today.

Carbon-free transport is the future of sea transport. It is a global challenge that requires collaboration beyond national interests and commercial objectives but must still take those into consideration. The human challenge is rapidly becoming tangible; the goal is clear. It is now up to us.

Yves de Montcheuil, co-founder of Syroco