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OPINION: It's time to limit shipping pollution to protect Africa’s coast and climate

by Mohamed Adow | @mohadow | Power Shift Africa
Thursday, 22 October 2020 15:22 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Smoke is blown from a cargo ship off the coast of Falmouth, Cornwall, Britain at dawn October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Boyce

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pushing back against dirty shipping could lead to big strides against climate change

Mohamed Adow is the director of Powershift Africa, a Nairobi-based energy and climate think-tank.

Nowhere suffers more from the ravages of climate change than Africa. Be they rising temperatures, droughts or coastal storms like Cyclone Idai, we are bearing the brunt.  One of the primary culprits that drives this climate crisis is the global shipping industry.

When most people think about what causes climate change, they may picture belching coal plants or exhaust fumes.  But shipping, out of sight to most of us on land, emits over 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. If it ranked as a country it would be above all but the top 5 polluters on the planet.

What is worrying is that shipping carries 80% of global trade. So as trade increases, so does shipping. In fact, the size of the global shipping fleet has quadrupled since the 1980s.

The good news is that this week governments from around the world are meeting to tackle this polluting menace. There are now more than 30 ‘high ambition’ countries who support “goal-based operational efficiency” – which could, if set at the right stringency, cut the sector’s emissions by over 40% by 2030, preventing up to 90 coal-fired power stations worth of CO2 entering our atmosphere. 

It is vital that African politicians attending the summit, such as Kenya’s secretary for shipping and maritime affairs, Nancy Karigithu, put their support behind this proposal.

Some other countries, including Norway and Japan, along with industry lobby groups are attempting to undermine these efforts, watering them down to only voluntary measures, which would allow ships to carry on driving the climate change which ravages our continent.

What makes shipping such a dirty industry is that it uses the cheapest, nastiest kind of fuel. Heavy fuel oil, as it is known, is the thick, black sludge that comes out of the bottom of an oil refinery, once all the transparent fuels like gasoline have been removed.  If the shipping industry didn’t use it, it would be used to make asphalt or money would have to be spent to refine it further.

So this toxic waste, which is illegal to burn on land, gets burned out of sight at sea. The problem is when it comes to our climate, the atmosphere is equally affected by fossil fuels wherever they are burned.

And it’s not just through climate change that Africans are harmed. We have a long and beautiful coastline and shipping’s dirty fumes blow inland. In fact, around about 40% of the world’s population live within 100 km (60 miles) of the coast – and these fumes blow further inland than that.

The World Bank has pointed out that for African countries with renewable energy resources there is an economic opportunity in replacing shipping’s polluting heavy fuel oil with green hydrogen or ammonia, a liquid that can be produced with using renewable energy.  

The shipping industry spends over $150 billion a year on fossil fuel. So as it decarbonises, a growing share of that money can go to developing countries producing these alternative green fuels, instead of a handful of oil companies and petro-states.

African countries are at the forefront in tackling climate change. We are beginning to harness the abundance of clean, renewable wind and solar energy across our continent and African leaders are becoming environmental champions on the global stage.

When it comes to the big UN climate summits, these leaders fight hard for stronger action to curb climate change.  And if the shipping industry was a country with the fifth highest emissions in the world, they would rightly be appalled that it was taking such pathetic attempts to clean up its act.

It is vital that Kenya and other African nations stand alongside the coalition of countries which are pushing for stronger regulations to prevent shipping’s dirty secret from destroying our climate and our coastlines any further. 

If it does, this week could be a significant moment for the protection and prosperity of Africa.