How the Pacific is starting the voyage towards decarbonisation

The island micro-nations of the Pacific are positioned in the most vulnerable region to climate change. Project Cerulean is looking to develop a low-tech, low-cost low-carbon vessel targeting transport work requirements often neglected in broader international shipping discussions.

The global climate crisis is here and accelerating. The island micro-nations of the Pacific, despite contributing barely measurable emissions, lie in the crosshairs. For the atoll nations of the Marshall’s, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau in particular, anything over 1.5 degrees is an existential threat. 2 degrees is a virtual death warrant.

Even without climate change, we are the most disaster prone region in the world. Climate-related phenomena is predicted to intensify from here and Pacific island countries face dangerously high exposure. Our current population of 12 million people across 22 countries and territories in the region has the most remotely situated communities and cultures in the world. Climate resilient infrastructure has been too costly to construct across the region to meet the needs of exposed communities, and disaster response efforts are delayed in a region where transport is costly and constrained during the best of times.

The climate crisis was here before the COVID-19 pandemic and will be here long after it. The pandemic has highlighted that, no matter where the crisis is coming from – sea level rise, drought, ever more energetic and frequent cyclones, ocean acidification and associated coral destruction, warming, epidemic – for our tiny communities scattered across the world’s greatest ocean, shipping is our single greatest lifeline. Losing aviation may have crippled our tourism income generation sector and is an economic travesty, but it is shipping that provides the base connectivity and local flow of all essential goods and supplies. Losing that would be the ultimate disaster.

Our regional shipping services provided by well-established liner services are generally adequate from reasonably modern and well-maintained international fleets. But our nations’ domestic shipping services, those that provide essential connectivity in our island archipelagos nations, are often in very poor repair. Systemic issues, including financing and lack of economies of scale on extended bluewater routes, mean we are often trapped in a vicious cycle of old, badly maintained vessel being replaced by more of the same. All are diesel, the biggest operational cost, and the dependency on imported fossil fuels is crippling to national budgets. And, unsurprisingly, it is the smallest, most remote and vulnerable of our communities on the outer islands that are most disadvantaged. For these, shipping services are infrequent and often erratic. And the most expensive per capita and per ton/mile of cargo carried to service.

For many of our small states, the cost and strain of maintaining essential connectivity to outer islands with few resources to trade apart from fish, seaweed and copra has seen an escalating internal migration to a few urban centres, setting up yet another vicious cycle, of depopulation of young talent. The importance of shipping as the essential economic, social and government service link of our maritime communities has never been adequately prioritised. Despite transport being the region’s single largest fuel and emissions sector, it has consistently played a secondary role to renewable electricity agendas.

Pacific high-ambition

Globally, shipping in 2050 will invariably look very different from that in 2020 under the full decarbonisation pathway that is crucially needed. Pacific high-ambition states have been consistent in their call for the sector to play its full role in the global agenda at the International Maritime Organization. But the huge risk and conundrum is that the big nations and traders will now transition and leave us stranded with aged, inefficient and increasingly expensive-to-operate fleets.

Our socio-geographic realities necessitate a different scale and approach in development response to encourage improved connectivity in line with national, regional, and global SDG commitments. Fiji and the Marshall Islands announced the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in September, 2019. The Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership seeks to mobilize US$500m to catalyse the necessary paradigm shift over the 2020-2030 period to ensure our countries, currently reliant on a fleet of domestic vessels of which the majority are over 20 years old (and over a third exceed 30 years old), match step. While ultimate savings will require new fuels, research shows the technology exists to accrue significant savings in domestic Pacific shipping scenarios now. The challenge now rests in working with partners bilaterally and multilaterally across all sectors to ensure financing this fleet renewal leads to development of capacity with the region to design, construct, service, operate, and reinvigorate the maritime transport industry, and as a corollary of so doing, slow or halt the depopulation trend on the outer islands.

One of our pioneering projects is a joint research endeavour with Swire Shipping in “Project Cerulean”. It is a very practical project targeting the shipping needs of our outer island communities. The call is for a low-tech, low-cost low-carbon vessel of around 40m length overall, capable of regular and safe delivery of basic cargo with at least a 50% reduction in operational fuel cost.

Cerulean Project: Preliminary General Arrangement Design of the Cerulean Vessel

Over the course of 2019-2020, the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport has been working with a team of maritime professionals and academics to investigate the most appropriate design and route to trial a prototype vessel able to achieve cost-effective and energy efficient operations over a two-year trial period following construction, planned for 2021 and targeted to be undertaken at a competent shipyard within the Pacific to raise local economic capacity within the region. During the operational trial, extensive monitoring, reporting, and verification will be undertaken as part of the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport’s research commitment. This undertaking is expected to yield a robust data set on the direct and indirect impacts and benefits of replicating and scaling this type of service to outer island communities across the Pacific and potentially other regions.

Project Cerulean represents a novel public-private partnership for the Oceania region, with potential to guide the broader implementation of the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership, which is expected to involve blended finance aimed at implementing solutions for both government and private vessel operators with sufficient capital and concessional lending modalities to improve service through fleet renewal with low carbon alternatives and reduced operational expenditures.

Neglected in international discussions

Project Cerulean is targeting transport work requirements often neglected in broader international shipping discussions. The scale at which outer island communities require service is usually regarded as un-viably small to international shipping lines accustomed to logistics of large, containerised units moving between capital/urban ports. Some of our capitals are so they are unable to accommodate 40’ containers. Outside of the Capitals’ the infrastructure is, at best, basic.

As the initial research phase draws to a successful close, Project Cerulean has already demonstrated the benefits of multi-sectoral partnership. Swire’s resourcing commitment has empowered a Design Review Team supported by Kiribati National Shipping Line, Island Ventures, and Hochschule Emden/Leer University of Applied Sciences. French naval architecture firm VPLP is now working with Lloyd’s Register to ensure this new vessel meets stringent design standards to operate in-class, setting a precedent for safe, sustainable domestic shipping in the Pacific. Public-Private collaboration and dialogue are critical to address this goal in the years to come.

With Swire Shipping, we are proudly setting a new template and standard for future work in this critical sector.