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Expanding the Panama Canal may shrink shipping industry emissions

Posted on behalf of Virginia Gewin.

The Panama Canal is growing. By 2014 — 100 years after the canal was first completed — ships with a beam of up to 49 metres will be able to travel through the 82-kilometre channel (pictured), up from the current 32.2-metre limit.

Upping the beam constraint, known among seafarers as ‘Panamax’, will have ripple effects throughout the shipping industry. Larger ships will enable the transport of more goods in fewer trips, and larger beams will facilitate the design of more efficient hulls, according to a study in the International Journal of Maritime Engineering.

Overall, the potential savings — in both fuel and reduced emissions — may be as great as 16% per tonne-mile. The potential for such reduced environmental impact stemming from the canal expansion is, largely, an unexpected windfall for the shipping industry as a whole, says study author Paul Stott, a marine engineering lecturer at Newcastle University, UK.

A 16% improvement in efficiency is significant given that the International Maritime Organisation estimates that, without major steps to reduce emissions, shipping will be responsible for 12–18% of global emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050.

The improvements would go beyond the ships that use the canal. Some 45% of larger seagoing vessels built in the last decade conformed to the Panamax constraint because, despite the fact that many of these ships never go near the Panama Canal, their value is based on their ability to do so. “The size of the benefit is much larger than one might think based solely on the canal’s traffic statistics; it has to be viewed in the context of the whole fleet,” says Stott.

However, the industry has just been through a huge boom in building ships — so it could take a while to transition to more efficient hull designs. But, says Stott, “because we built too many ships, freight rates are poor; as a result, the 16% cost savings could, paradoxically, provide enough incentive for ship owners to buy newer, more efficient boats”.

Image courtesy of lyng883 via Flickr under Creative Commons.


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