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A return to wind power for global shipping promises benefits for multiple stakeholders

A return to wind power for global shipping promises benefits for multiple stakeholders

It’s believed that the invention of sails in Ancient Egypt allowed the first sailboats—and hence, the first wave of maritime commerce—to become viable 5,500 years ago. And many thought that with the end of sail-based shipping in the late 1950s (with exceptions), that was that: who needs sails when you have powered sea navigation?

The answer, increasingly, and rather fascinatingly, is a world trying to decarbonize as quickly as it can. 

In other words: all of us.

According to this in-depth look into the return of sail from Bloomberg, some of the biggest names in the maritime trade are investing in retrofitting or building newly designed vessels that harness wind energy to “meet pollution-busting goals and emissions standards”.

A $14 trillion market—but one that needs to urgently change

The numbers show us why. The OECD tells us that no less than 90% of all Planet Earth’s traded goods are carried over the waves, with the oceans therefore providing “the main transport arteries for global trade”. However, the same authority then also immediately notes that global shipping is also responsible for a substantial share of air emissions, of at least 30% of total global NOx outputs alone; all in all, greenhouse gas emissions from shipping currently represent around 2.6% of total global emissions, or a billion tons annually--a figure that could more than triple by 2050 given the increasing use of things like massive container ships.

There are different figures for that ratio, to be sure (the UN puts it at more like 80 % of global trade by volume and over 70% of global trade by value, for example). But  if we could work out a less polluting way of pushing that estimated 11 billion tons of goods that get transported by ship each year, this hugely important $14 trillion market could play its part in the drive to Net Zero.

So why not use all that renewable free wind power instead? Such Back to the Future add-ons include giant kites that pull cargo ships to inflatable sails to spinning rotors that create lift, the move toward wind-powered commercial vessels will generate a doubling of such ships on the water by 2023.

But of course, we live in the world we’ve made, not the one we wish for. Putting canvas back into the picture—romantic as it sounds to schoolboys (not us; we’re far too young for that) raised on tales of an age of super-fast but also super-elegant tea clippers—only makes sense long-term if it adds value, cuts costs and isn’t too expensive to do.

Early days—but momentum building

Hence how early days it is for sail (or other forms of wind propulsion). As the Bloomberg piece notes, after years of slow activity, there’s now some traction, but by year end a mere 25 genuinely commercial vessels will be actually on the water. There are only 12 wind propulsion products to buy right now, too.

But—as with most sectors, this far from being the shipping industry’s sin alone—regulation will soon up the pace. The United Nations agency that regulates air pollution from shipping, The International Maritime Organization, has mandated an average reduction across international shipping of greenhouse gases by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050; all told, the market needs to cut emissions at least 50% by 2050 as compared to a 2008 baseline.

So what was once laughed out of court is getting real: the International Windship Association, which was set up eight years ago to facilitate and promote wind propulsion for commercial shipping worldwide, quotes UK government predictions that the market will grow from around £300 million per year in the 2020s to around £2 billion per year by the 2050s worldwide. And such a market will need—and benefit from—a wide variety of next-gen location, navigation, IoT and other supportive digital technology too, of course.

There are still hurdles; this will mean up-front capital investment to achieve, and in a market battered by supply chain disruption and a fragile global economy, perhaps a pivot to wind will be seen as a low priority.

But long-term, will we see the debut of the coal-powered steamship in the early 1800s as not the triumph of progress but a temporary move into a regrettable technological cul-de-sac?

There’s surely enough of the sailing romantic in all of us to think that’s at least possible?