Maritime trade needs to embrace the limits imposed by nature and discard a profits-at-all-cost business model.
Maritime trade is a fundamental element of the globalized economy, yet with climate change leaving no one intact the sector will face fundamental transformations in the next decades, according to a new paper published in Marine Policy.
Maritime shipping sector comprises 80% of global trade by volume and is currently responsible for around 2.5% of global emissions. Having recently committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% until 2050, it is now under scrutiny by scientists who are trying to unveil the complex role of the sector in global climate action. Curiously, the possibility to meet targets might be greatly influenced not only by the actions within the sector but also by the progression of climate change as such.
Conducted by a team of authors from to British and Greek sustainability institutes, the new study suggests four diverging scenarios for how international maritime trade might be influenced by climate change until 2050. The scenarios differ based on expected rates of climate change from 2°C to 4°C warming and subsequent changes in key trade commodities such as coal, biomass, crude petroleum, and others.
It turns out that different rates of climate change are fundamentally linked to the development of the sector. And while in many areas of life people fear losses from climate change, it is the other way around here, at least on the surface.
Under the best-case scenario of effective climate action we can expect only a twofold increase in trade. Meanwhile, under a 4°C warming scenario as much as a fourfold increase may happen if we don’t manage to effectively address climate challenges. This doesn’t mean that things will be going better, but that we will face an even greater need for the reallocation of resources on a rapidly warming planet. This, however, might worsen impacts in the long term, as well as lead to the rise in transport emissions.
The analysis also looks at more detailed links between climate action and the trade in different commodities. For example, high growth in a trade scenario is expected to be coupled with only limited rates of decarbonization, while a rapid switch to a 97% reduction in coal use for electricity production would lead to a 88% decrease in the international coal trade.
Not surprisingly, the researchers have also revealed the complex impacts of negative emissions technology on trade pathways and large variations of the biomass trade across scenarios due to the as yet uncertain structure of future energy mixes. Considering this wide variety of possible futures under climate change, the shipping sector will need to become more flexible and get ready for a fast restructuring of trade in line with new sustainability demands and shifting societal priorities.
The authors suggest that the scenarios provide “a valuable policy and decision-making tool to address technological and operational change required of the shipping sector if it is to deliver mitigation in line with the Paris Agreement.”
Meanwhile, this analysis once again reminds us of the limits of economic growth and that unregulated economic expansion can be disastrous for the planet. The researchers emphasize that social framings of sustainability, as well as climate action choices, will have a crucial impact on the trajectories of maritime trade. And although the direct impact of the maritime trade on climate change is negligible, it can act as a powerful intermediary and force for good in driving action across many other areas: from slow steaming that can help downsize the economy to changes in fuel types which make a small but noticeable contribution to the change of the global energy mix.
For the future of maritime trade to be sustainable in the long term, it will have to embrace the limits imposed by nature and discard a shortsighted profits-at-all-cost business model.