Cargo ships: a low-carbon travel alternative?

Sensemaking / Cargo ships: a low-carbon travel alternative?

Ed Gillespie charts the pleasures, or otherwise, of a plane-free course around the globe.

By Futures Centre / 20 Jan 2011

Four years ago, cargo ships got big. Really big. The launch of the 400-metre long, 170,000 tonne Emma Maersk created a shipping Leviathan. It symbolised the huge growth in marine traffic internationally, which has seen the number of cargo ships double since 1990 to over 50,000 vessels and their capacity increase fourfold. There are more and bigger cargo ships plying the world's trade routes then there have ever been before. On the surface (in more ways than one) this should open up new possibilities of travel for carbon-conscious passengers, too. But the reality isn't so simple.

In 2007-08, as part of a round the world trip undertaken without once taking to the air, I spent over 45 days at sea on various cargo vessels. Not as a galley-hand or honorary deck-swabber, as penniless marine hitchhikers might have secured a passage 20 years ago, but as a fare-paying passenger, booking my place via specialists freightertravel.co.nz.

The experience was revelatory, offering a fascinating insight into the hidden muscle of a trade in which a million sailors escort our goods around the world – not to mention a unique perspective into their lives and cultures. From warbling karaoke with garrulous Filipinos (...my girlfriend, the only woman onboard, sang 'Like a Virgin' to a crew who hadn't seen land for two months...), to playing brutally intense table tennis alongside former heavyweight boxers from the Ukraine, it was clear that merchant seamen live a tough and isolated life far from home.

As a passenger you are very much a tiny part of the cargo, which is why the personal carbon footprint of a container ship passenger can be as low as 1/300th that of someone taking a comparable flight. Legal restrictions also mean that a ship must have an onboard doctor to carry more than a dozen guests, so you are typically a novel minority component of the crew. It's not inexpensive – and at between £60-100 per day, it's comparable to (and certainly feels like!) a cheap hotel. However, once you factor in full board on top of this, and allow for the distances travelled, financial costs can end up being broadly comparable to flying.

"My girlfriend, the only woman onboard, sang 'Like a Virgin' to a crew who hadn't seen land for two months..."

From the shipping companies' viewpoint, the financial benefits of carrying tourists are at present minimal. So it's not surprising that many are taking an increasingly dim view of passengers. Heightened security in ports, complicated bureaucracy and the desire to minimise avoidable hassles are all combining to reduce the number of available berths on cargo ships. So despite the appeal of ocean crossings without the crap cabaret and casinos of conventional cruise ships, the opportunities to 'cargo cruise' are sadly diminishing.

Not that cruise liners are a low-carbon option compared to container ships. Over 13 million punters took a cruise last year, and whilst the pleasures of luxury marine travel compared to cattle-truck aviation are undeniable, the carbon footprint is typically far worse: a return trip to New York on the QE2, for example, is 7.5 times more carbon intensive than a flight.

Meanwhile, my personal hopes for the future of low-carbon travel rest on the return of commercial airships – which should be 90% more carbon efficient than conventional aircraft. I like to daydream about a return to a gentler, more genteel, form of aviation for long global journeys. At 48 hours from London to New York, they would be slower than a plane but faster than a ship, with neither deep vein thrombosis nor seasickness. Let's revive the galleons of the skies!

Ed Gillespie is Co-Founder, Futerra Sustainability Communications.

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