Transportation is a huge part of the climate change crisis. Ocean-going vessels play a significant role in GHG emissions, but can we tackle our cargo problems in time?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

There’s a famous saying about putting a fox in charge of the hen house that grossly underestimates human ingenuity. We are not foxes, and so we have the ability to be much cleverer custodians of institutions we’re still destroying. Why, with our managerial prowess, we can protract the chicken slaughter so it goes on for decades!

Take the International Energy Agency (IEA). When it formed in 1974, its primary focus was securing our global energy market in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis: a mission that required bolstering the oil economy even as the organization eventually developed an interest in green energy alternatives, too. In recent years, the IEA has pursued net zero carbon emissions, promoted greater global energy efficiency, expanded its alternative energies portfolio, and helped developing nations leapfrog past other countries’ earlier energy sector mistakes.

But has it been too little too late? Perhaps. Committing to an alternative energy portfolio while supporting traditional petroleum industries can amount to a conflict of interest, and multiple international groups have criticized the IEA for downplaying how quickly the world could transform its energy needs and shift sourcing toward renewables. A little like a cleverer fox, this administrator for our hen house has developed alternative meat sources for fellow foxes, while retaining the myth that the hen slaughter must go on until the transition is complete.

Granted, the IEA has also committed to a 2050 Net Zero Emissions scenario, and wants “universal energy access” by 2030, in keeping with UN Sustainable Development objectives alongside the findings of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. It further offers an excellent overview of a wide range of new technologies (around 550 in that interactive guide) being explored, developed, and implemented to tackle different problems in the energy sector.

But as the agency plainly notes in 2023 assessments of the work, we are not even close to meeting our goals. Only 3 of some 50 active green energy projects are on track, and even then, those three are regionally successful more than globally implemented. In more positive news, some promising technologies are emerging to help transition the energy sector, which is responsible for three quarters of the world’s emissions. But a rebound of consumer activity in the transport industry after COVID-19 lockdowns poses a huge setback to all progress made.

Cargo transport in particular poses a mounting problem. Freight transport contributes 8% to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (11% if we include ports and warehouses), and global demand is expected to triple by 2050 at current rates, thanks in large part to significant consumer growth in rising two-thirds-world economies. Trucks and vans make up 65% of those emissions, which is especially impressive because of how small a slice they are of overall cargo transport. Ocean-going ships are responsible for three quarters of freight, but the other quarter, on land, emits 100 times more GHG, especially in black carbon.

We have to work together, not just on one project but on many, if most of our species has any chance of surviving this era’s ecological disaster.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, we explore a possible “fix” to the ocean-going component of our transportation problem: a much more aggressive (some might say “forced”) transformation of this industry to run solely on renewable or otherwise net zero energy sources. But while this is an important topic, it’s also important to keep in mind what the book doesn’t cover. Even this ambitious speculative fiction novel, set in a near future overwhelmed by climate crisis, couldn’t find as easy a fix for the larger land-bound emissions problem.

Which is fine! The Ministry for the Future isn’t supposed to be treated as a holistic answer, so much as a framing device for asking key questions about what we can and should be doing amid climate change disaster. This Humanist Book Club, then, we’re looking at more than the eco-friendly transportation that exists in its pages. We’re also asking how to take these ideas one step further, to tackle what too often feels like a pipe dream for energy sector reform.

The Ministry for the Future: Climate change strategies and challenges for review

  1. Quantitative easing: Is real carbon sequestration under capitalism possible?
  2. How do we make protests work for climate change reform?
  3. Do we have the technology to ease our melting ice sheets?
  4. Eco-friendly transportation? The good, the bad, and the pipe dreams
  5. The struggle for a more global response to climate change
  6. Can we ever truly combat climate change in a world at war?
  7. Fair taxation, or: How to spare billionaires from terrorist attack

As I’ve noted in other “chapters” of book club, some of the changes that Robinson proposes are shaped around a world in deeper crisis than our own.

Quantitative easing through the creation of a carbon coin, for instance, becomes plausible only once today’s banking systems fail just a little more than they already have. How else does one get central banks to agree to take proactive measures? And if we already have the technology to address our melting ice sheets, then maybe we simply need a world more desperate for real change, and therefore readier to work together when pumping water to save our glaciers.

(Or, as has rightly been noted in your excellent comments to date, maybe the answer also lies in far more civic education and stronger incentives to reduce consumer demand at source. That’s a trickier beast to tackle, though Robinson thinks the carbon coin will help a lot to change civic attitudes. Either way, I’ll add it as a closing chapter to this series. Thank you for the feedback!)

Similarly, pay close attention to this book’s imagined outcome for a transport industry that has shifted to solar and sail technologies:

The new port city on the Arctic Ocean, called Mackenzie Prime, looked like an old industrial site. A single dock six kilometers long, studded with cranes for handling container ships. The opening up of the Arctic Ocean to ships had made for one of the odd zones of the Anthropocene. Traffic was mostly container ships refurbished as autopiloted solar-powered freighters, slow but steady. Carbon-neutral transport on a great circle route, and as such not much to complain about. Also there were few to complain, at least in terms of locals; the total population on the coasts of the Arctic Ocean still numbered less than a million people: Inuit, Sami, Athapaskan, Inupiat, Yakut; Russian, American, Canadian, Scandinavian.

As they flew they saw a lot of other airships. Giant robot freighters, circular sky villages under rings of balloons, actual clippers of the clouds sporting sails or pulled by kites, hot-air balloons in their usual rainbow array. There had not yet been any regularization of shapes and sizes; Art said they were still in the Cambrian explosion moment of airship design. Many people were moving up into the sky, and traffic lanes and altitudes had been established, as with jets in the old days. Airspace was humanized and therefore also bureaucratized. And carbon neutral.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Did you catch the feasibility context here? The Arctic Circle, having become an even easier passage thanks to climate change’s work upon our ice caps, offers at least one plus: shorter delivery routes among a less-populated region.

Would the Arctic provide enough solar energy for such an industry? Surprisingly, yes: especially in the summer and the spring, when one either experiences longer days or more reflectivity off the snow. Storage possibilities for the winter, or simply more strategic approaches to shipping seasons, might easily account for the rest.

The range of solar and sail possibilities is also substantial. Wind propulsion and wind assist projects vary from fully renewable to offsetting some ongoing reliance on oil and diesel, with the latter category especially key for retrofitting rather than entirely scrapping older vessels. This year, the Pyxis Ocean, a wind-assisted cargo ship, set out on a maiden voyage from China to Brazil, to test its new technology. It is one of around 20 commercial vessels currently using wind power in some form.

And although Robinson doesn’t discuss this part directly, the idea of autopiloted cargo ships has a huge positive impact on human well-being. Alexis Madrigal has an eight-part podcast series, Containers, that explores the rise and toll of the container shipping industry, while 99% Invisible offers a nightmare of an episode about the human workers trapped in foreign waters on abandoned shipping vessels: one more form of exploitation without clear recourse. If fixing our shipping industry for environmental reasons also lessens the number of humans caught in terrible employment situations or outright indentured servitude, all the better.

But would new Arctic routes supplant the significant amount of land-bound transport we still have to tackle as part of the emissions reduction equation? Not really. These routes also raise the specter of the Jevons paradox, even though Robinson didn’t mention it in conjunction with this industry. Simply put, if transport became faster and easier through an Arctic route, would efficiency not incentivize an increase in consumer demand? If so, the carbon-neutral ships wouldn’t be a GHG problem, but the trucks and vans finishing up those distribution routes would be. We’d still have to do a heck of a job converting them to carbon-neutral vehicles as well.

In other words: It could work, but not on its own. As with so many other pieces to the puzzle explored in this text, none of these climate crisis “fixes” succeeds without a broader consensus for change. Furthermore, most of them work best in tandem with complementary adjustments in other fields of human striving.

We have to work together, not just on one project but on many, if most of our species has any chance of surviving this era’s ecological disaster.

Change by any means

But did you also catch the possible hitch?

Listed among the “few to complain” about this future carbon-neutral transport up North is Russia, and anyone who follows Arctic politics knows full well that there are huge national exploitation issues underway above the Arctic Circle. This is because the region is crucial for water security, fishery management, and community safety in the world ahead. It’s already a site of territorial crisis, which Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated by hitting pause on Arctic Council dialogue.

Simply put, to achieve his solution to climate change disaster, Robinson has configured the Antarctic as a site of meltwater pumping and the Arctic as a convenient new home for the vast majority of carbon-neutral ocean-going transport. However, this innovator’s paradise of new solar and sail tech won’t come to pass without sufficient willingness to put aside traditional nationalist fights.

Could that happen? Well, let’s consider the turning point Robinson proposes:

The War for the Earth is often said to have begun on Crash Day. And it was later that same year when container ships began to sink, almost always close to land. Torpedoes from nowhere: a different kind of drone. It was noticed early on in this campaign that ships often went down where they could form foundations for new coral reefs. In any case, they were going down. They ran on diesel fuel, of course. Loss of life in these sinkings was minimal, but world trade was severely impacted. Stock markets fell even lower than they had after Crash Day. A worldwide recession, a feeling of loss of control, price spikes in consumer goods, the clear prospect of the full-blown depression that indeed followed a few years later… it was a time of dread.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

For those who’ve read William Gibson’s The Peripheral (2014), you might find yourself thinking of his proposed “Jackpot” when reading the above passage by Robinson. The Jackpot is an imagined cascade failure of global events that wipes out around 80% of humanity. Those who survive generally belong to a garden of technological delights that allow them to indulge their boredom and dissociative cruelty through gambling along the time stream.

Unlike many future-forward books that wipe out most of humanity, though, this garden of artifice for the survivors is nothing to be admired. It’s as hollow as the selfishness that brought humanity to such a crushing collapse in the first place. Our loyalties are meant to lie, instead, with the people who live before the Jackpot, and who might just be able to lessen its horrific impact from the start, with a little help from those in the future who recognize what they’ve lost.

The question is: Does Robinson’s solution require anything less than similar disaster before we learn enough shame to try to save what remains of our societies?

That “time of dread” is summarized in abstract terms in Robinson’s near-future novel, but we have seen it before in our world: in the Great Depression. In times of famine (like the famines already present in the world today). In times (also like today) of resource wars and the displacements they incur.

We often talk about having “survived” such times before, but this is survivor’s bias at its finest: Some survived. Many did not then, and many will not now.

Must we always undergo mass death and mass suffering before we make a change? In my industry of science fiction, writers often depict terrible futures of loss to provide an incentive for social transformation before such ends come to pass.

Would that the warnings of speculative fiction could ever be enough.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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