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Can shipping go green?

By Anouk Lorie for CNN
Australian company Solar Sailor is introducing the first solar and wind-powered ferries in Hong Kong's harbor.
Australian company Solar Sailor is introducing the first solar and wind-powered ferries in Hong Kong's harbor.
  • Solar and wind-powered ferries are being introduced in Hong Kong's polluted harbor
  • The shipping industry, slow to adopt green solutions, is looking in that direction
  • Shipping emissions are said to cause the death of 60,000 people annually

London, England (CNN) -- In a city where one can hardly see the horizon because of an almost constant cloud of filth and pollution, many Hong Kong residents have long given up on the idea of a clean, green life.

But one Australian company is trying to counter that, with the introduction in the city's harbor, the second busiest in the world, of eco-friendly ferries that run on solar and wind power.

Solar Sailor has created a new type of sail -- rigid wings covered in solar panels that can bend and fold depending on the direction of the sun and wind. Four of these solar ferries will be roaming the waters of Hong Kong in January and Solar Sailor is in talks to introduce them in Shanghai and San Francisco.

"When we started in 1999, oil was at $10 a barrel, no one had heard of a hybrid car and people weren't educated about global warming," Solar Sailor CEO Robert Dane told CNN. With oil now around $73 a barrel, Dane says green technologies make more financial sense than ever.

Video: Solar Sailor

Despite these developments, ferries only contribute to a small amount of the world's overall shipping pollution, which is said to cause over 60,000 premature deaths every year, according to James Corbett, an expert in marine policy. The big polluters are oil tankers and freighters, which carry over 80 percent of the world's trade.

That is why Solar Sailor is now turning its attention to these giant ships, infamous for using some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet that release high levels of contaminants, such as sulfur dioxide. At the current rate, by 2020 more sulfur dioxide is expected to be generated by vessels at sea than all the vessels on land.

Now China's biggest shipping company, Cosco, is in advanced talks with Solar Sailor for the fitting of solar wings on some of its large tankers. Another shipping company, NYK Line, launched Auriga Leader in December 2008, the world's first solar-assisted freighter.

But for Nikolaos Kirtatos, Director of the Laboratory of Marine Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens, a solar-powered supertanker is wishful thinking. "A big ship needs so much power and the technology is not there yet," he told CNN. "With solar panels you also need a very large surface and a lot of storage space for batteries."

Kirtatos predicted, "Fossil fuels will continue to be the main source of energy for the foreseeable future, at least the next two decades."

Traditionally, the shipping industry has been slower than others, such as the car and aviation industries, to implement sustainable technologies.

That is because countries largely overlooked shipping as it operates outside national territories, meaning the shipping emissions do not appear in countries' pollution balance.

According to James Corbett, Professor of Marine Policy at the University of Delaware, "That is changing with new expectations for environmental performance, higher fuel prices and stricter regulators such as the International Maritime Organization."

But if the shipping industry does not take measures to further reduce its emissions, Corbett predicts the number of related deaths could rise to 87,000 by 2012.

"The industry still has a lot more it can do, including more efficient vessel design that could lead to smaller consumption of fuel," he told CNN.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place this week in Copenhagen, regulators are expected to announce a tax on oil consumption by ships.

One of the world's largest shipping companies, Maersk, told CNN it would welcome stricter regulations.

Maersk has been on the forefront of changes in ship design and operation in order to "reduce fuel use and avoid maritime disasters caused by the accidental spilling of thousands of tons of petrol into the world's oceans," Soren Stig Nielsen, Director of Sustainability at Maersk, told CNN.

Stig Nielsen sees significant opportunities for shipping to become more effective and environmentally friendly in moving large quantities of goods.

He told CNN that Maersk has already introduced "double-hull vessels" which make spilling of oil more difficult. "But," said Stig Nielsen, "It's not just how you build the ships, but how you operate them -- allowing the ships to sail slower and reducing speed to half the maximum would save a lot of fuel and reduce operating costs."

Maersk has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent for 2012, on top of the 15 percent reduction it says it has achieved since 2002.

Regarding the use of green energies such as solar and wind power, Nielsen said Maersk is looking into it. "Right now we owe it to ourselves to look at all the options and think solar power could some day be used as supplement energy," he told CNN.

"The shipping industry has improved, but it still has a long way to go," he said.