October 25, 2011

Climate Change Winners and Losers: The Commercial Shipping Industry

The decline of Arctic summer sea ice and the opening of passage
to commercial travel for at least one month of the year have been pointed to as
the silver lining of a dark cloud that has cast a shadow over a world experiencing
global climate change. And while it may be true that Arctic ice melt could be a
boon to the commercial shippers plying the High North, climate change is likely
to pose challenges to the same industry elsewhere.

Experts caution that climate change could disrupt global
trade by impacting sea ports in key cities around the world. In September, The New York Times reported that port
operators have done little to prepare for such potential climate effects. “Though
the impacts of climate change have been extensively studied in other areas,
especially in agriculture and for flood zones, up to now there has been little
comprehensive investigation into how shipping ports will be affected
,” The New York Times reported.

But the slow call to action is worrying given the cities
likely to be disrupted by climate change, specifically by sea level rise. A new
report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that
the majority
of cities most vulnerable to economic disruption from climate change lie in
developed countries
, with American cities like Miami, the greater New York
area (New York and Newark), New Orleans and other bustling international hubs
like Tokyo ranking among the top 15 most vulnerable. Developing countries are
also exposed, with quickly emerging economic hubs like Mumbai, Calcutta,
Bangkok and Guangzhou, China extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.

These trends are quite unsettling when one considers that
nearly 80
of global trade is done by sea. “With
hundreds of ports tied to one another in often intricate and complex trade
links, even a temporary disruption to one far-flung port facility can have
wide-ranging implications on all global trade if there are no suitable
alternative ports nearby
,” according to The
New York Times
. With global climate mitigation efforts potentially stalled in
the near term (we’ll find out for sure in Durban), port operators and the
authorities governing them will likely need to invest in climate adaptation
programs to hedge against these kinds of potential disruptions.  

The UN Conference on Trade and Development held a meeting September
with experts to discuss the potential impacts of climate change on
existing ports and port development in some of these key cities, and how to
adapt to the changing environment. (A number of presentations made at the
meeting are available

One Chinese expert, Dr. Adolf K. Y. Ng from the Hong Kong
(China) Polytechnic University, spoke to two particular problems for getting
ports to adapt to climate change. The first is the belief that port adaptation
is not necessarily a priority. “The
impacts posed by climate changes on ports seem to be too 'gradual' or
'moderate' when compared to other aspects
," according to Ng.  The other, Ng said, is the "willingness
to adapt" problem. (This is particularly the case in China, Ng reported, as
flooding has been a perpetual challenge for the country that has not seemed
more pressing than other challenges the government faces.)  

Other experts pointed to potential climate adaptation
solutions that could be implemented to adapt ports to sea level rise. These solutions
include movable
infrastructure and better flood protection
, including updated designs for
sea walls. According to one expert, traditional breakwater designs have not actually
adapted to climate change and need to be updated; existing
designs assume that sea level will remain static and that future weather
patterns will be based on historical events
(not, for example, models that
project more violent and frequent storms for littoral communities).

What is clear is that all of these trends portend challenges
for the global shipping industry. Indeed, if the ports that the shipping
industry rely on to deliver their goods become inundated and inoperable, it won’t
matter really if commercial ships can cut a few days (or weeks) off their
travel time by traversing the Arctic ocean. It is a useful reminder that as we
think about climate change winners and losers, the two are not mutually
exclusive. What could be a boon for an industry in one part of the world could
prove disastrous elsewhere.