It’s not just about the canal
It’s become an article of faith for some in the transportation industry that ocean shipping’s move to larger ships will be a boon to the environment.
But speaking at a conference sponsored by the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade, Jason Mathers, senior manager of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said it’s important when considering the environmental impact of shipping to take a “system’s view” of freight movements.
For example, Mathers said last year he was asked by a company to determine if it was more “carbon efficient” for it to bring cargo into the Port of Los Angeles and move it by rail to Dallas or ship it through the Panama Canal to Houston and then move it by truck to Dallas. He found the Los Angeles routing more environmentally attractive.
For those who want to dig into the subject more deeply, Mathers cited the study Panama Canal Expansion: Emission Changes from possible U.S. West Coast Modal Shift, which appeared in December journal of Future Science.
The study explores the potential effect of increased movements through the Panama Canal after 2014 when the size of ships able to transit the waterway will nearly triple. The report is a collaboration of scientists at the University of Delaware’s School of Marine Science and Policy led by James Corbett and EDF transportation analysts.
The study looked at both carbon emissions, as well as other pollutants such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, and found the expanded canal is not an environmental panacea.
It cited that “substitution of larger ships can reduce the CO2 footprint of cargoes carried by containership through an expanded canal; however, diversion of current cargoes from modes known to be higher emitting per TEU-mile (ton-mile or ton-kilometer) may not provide emissions benefits where waterborne route distances offset modal efficiencies.”
Assuming future cargo volumes and a 10 percent diversion of freight from the West Coast to the East Coast, the study concluded “the effects of the Panama Canal expansion on CO2 emissions are negligible due to longer distances traveled. Diversion distance offsets vessel size efficiency gains and reductions in inland transportation miles.”
It also said changes in emissions of air quality pollutants, including small changes in black carbon and other short-lived climate pollutants, could be regionally significant for air quality.
The study suggests short-sea shipping is one way to possibly mitigate some emission increases in regions with higher container traffic volumes.
Mathers said while freight emissions are growing rapidly here in the United States “we are seeing there are a lot of opportunities to increase efficiencies that will slow this rate of growth and possibly even bring it down, so we can grow our businesses and become more efficient and take cost out of the system.”
He told CONECT members “when you make decisions that increase efficiencies and have environmental benefits, you are doing good by your company, you are doing good by your career and doing good by your family.”
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