Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

I thought DVD players just appeared in stores magically

Posted by Evan Herrnstadt on October 16, 2007

Well, to continue pigeonholing myself as a purveyor of British transportation-related climate change news, the Independent reports that shipping emissions might be higher than we thought — perhaps comprising a larger proportion than aviation:

Shipping, although traditionally thought of as environmentally friendly, is growing so fast that the pollution it creates is at least 50 per cent higher than previously thought. Maritime emissions are also set to leap by 75 per cent by 2020. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN body set up to regulate shipping, has set up a working group due to report this year. Research seen by the group suggests previous calculations, which put the total at about 600 million tonnes per year, are significantly short. The true figure is set to be more than one billion tonnes…

This one is going to be tricky. A carbon policy that doesn’t address shipping is going to miss a lot of emissions. One petition claims (take grain of salt now) that international shipping emissions are nearly equivalent to the sum of American auto emissions. A policy that neglects shipping would also miss some of the lowest-hanging, dirtiest emissions around:

Since the 1970s, the bulk of commercial vessels have run on heavy “bunker” fuel, a by-product of the oil refining process for higher grade fuels. One industry insider described it as “the crap that comes out the other end that’s half way to being asphalt”.

Gross. Unfortunately, we like our nations sovereign and our goods cheap. We will obviously run into collective action problems regulating shipping similar to those we’ve encountered in other global carbon emissions discussions. As for prices, how often do you see “Made in China” in a given day? Here’s one reason why:

At present it is more efficient to ship a container from Beijing to London than it is to transport it 100km by road.

So we would need to slap a carbon price on shipping emissions, which would make many goods more expensive. We could impose regulations on ships entering US waters, but that’s a heavy-handed, inefficient way to achieve the same ends. Clearly, either policy would make shipping goods from, say, China to the US (or UK) more expensive, and that might mean less lead paint for our children. Is that really a price we’re willing to pay to mitigate climate change?

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