‘Put shipping higher on the climate agenda’


Last year we saw that a ship stranded in the Suez Canal can disrupt trade worldwide. According to Professor Mark van Koningsveld (TU Delft), such obstacles can be expected much more often due to climate change.

The fact that emissions from ships contribute to climate change is a known source of concern. Governments and shipowners are already taking measures to make ships cleaner. My university, TU Delft, is also doing research into making shipping more sustainable, for example through the use of hydrogen and other energy carriers.

What we often forget is that the effect works both ways. Climate change, on the other hand, also has major consequences for shipping. Few people are concerned about this, while we will soon feel the effects of climate change there very quickly and strongly.

Water transport is of great importance to the global economy. Around 80 percent of all global freight is transported by water somewhere in the chain. Our country is heavily dependent on the worldwide network of shipping routes for the delivery and export of goods and raw materials.

Around 80 percent of all global freight is transported by water somewhere in the chain

Last spring we saw that a single ship moored in the Suez Canal can cause enormous disruption to this trade network. Entrepreneurs did not receive raw materials and intermediate products or were delivered late, and consumers had to wait a long time for their products.

This global disruption was the result of just one unfortunate shipwreck. The climate crisis has a far greater and much more structural impact on waterways worldwide, and therefore also on our economy. If, for example, waterways become shallower due to prolonged drought, as was the case in the Netherlands in 2018, the transport capacity of rivers can sometimes decrease by tens of thousands of percent. Other modes of transport, such as rail and road, simply do not have the capacity to absorb this decline.

If droughts become more frequent and severe, as predicted by the UN Climate Panel IPCC, this will inevitably lead to higher transport costs and ultimately higher prices. But heavy rainfall and stronger storms can also cause problems. It is my firm belief that we will feel the effects of this type of climate change much sooner than we will get wet feet from rising sea levels.

Fortunately, climate change and the consequences for ports, waterways and shipping are now high on the research agenda. But not yet high enough on the political agenda. It is absolutely necessary that we drastically reduce emissions from shipping and work towards clean fuels. But we must not lose sight of the importance of climate adaptation.

We must now prepare our waterways, fleet and logistics processes for a future where the capacity and reliability of the water transport system will come under pressure more often than now. Given the global nature of water transport, we need to look beyond just the Netherlands.

Why is there so little attention to this? The revenge is no different from other already noticeable consequences of climate change: the effects are not acute, but insidious in nature. The four hundred meter long Ever Given, the ship in the Suez Canal, entered our consciousness in one fell swoop. The global consequences of climate change: We are aware of them, but we prefer to ignore them for a while. We can no longer afford that.

Text: Mark van Koningsveld, professor of port at TU Delft
Photo: Depositphotos

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