Environmental ‘Progress’ Means Backtracking to Days of Sail

Businessweek advocates ditching modern ships for wind-driven clippers.

After this, maybe the Pony Express will be the next thing to come back as part of a green initiative. Environmentalists and Bloomberg Businessweek are advocating that the shipping industry backtrack 100 years and reintroduce the clipper ship. Clipper ships dominated the shipping industry in the mid-1800s, until they were edged out by steam powered ships.

Businessweek ironically labeled their graphic for this July 18 article “Shipping’s High-tech Future.” While these clipper ships at least come with a few 21st Century bells and whistles, like mechanically rotating masts and supplemental biomethane fuel, this push for change doesn’t come from innovation or efficiency. Instead, it answers a new wave of regulations by the International Maritime Organization mandating how much sulfur fuel can be used by ships. Businessweek also claimed that going back to this system that shared a time period with the stage coach would prevent “about 84,000 deaths a year worldwide from marine emissions.”

These 84,000 deaths were extrapolated from 60,000, a number calculated by James Corbett of the University of Delaware. Corbett estimated the amount of pollutants released by shipping fuel, and then created a model for how that pollution could be distributed. He then used this model to find which regions had a higher risk for cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths that could be tied to pollutants.  “Depending on the scenarios and models used, the number of such premature deaths in 2002 ranged from about 19,000 to 64,000,” according to an Environmental Science and Technology article. The article also cited Janusz Cofala, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, who admitted that the study relied on “large uncertainties in emission estimates and other information used in the analysis.” In short, the numbers were doubtful at best.

Rolls Royce, the company working to “pioneer” this effort, is betting that “regulations curbing air pollution emissions will increase fuel costs for conventional ocean freighters and herald a New Age of Sail.” If Rolls Royce is right in its bet, it says more about restrictive regulations than it does about the merits of wind-powered clipper ships.