The Impact of Climate Change on the Maritime Sector

International maritime transport, vital to globalised trade and commerce, is facing various climate change challenges.

30 September 2021

In November 2021 the UK will host COP26, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Glasgow, Scotland.  Contracting parties to the Convention will meet to assess progress towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.  Adaptation and resilience is also a priority of the COP, recognising that even with aggressive decarbonisation policies there will be unavoidable physical impacts from climate and more extreme weather events.

As we celebrate another World Maritime Day in the lead up to COP26, it is a timely reminder to think about the important ways that climate change and Governments’ response to the climate emergency will affect the maritime sector.

International maritime transport carries over 80 per cent of the volume of world trade and is vital to globalised trade and commerce.  But like other economic sectors, it is facing a dual challenge in relation to climate change: the need to reduce its contribution to global warming and the need to adapt to the impacts of climatic changes.

As an industry highly reliant on fossil fuels, much of the focus to date has been on decarbonisation.  However, decarbonisation of shipping faces a unique set of challenges.  Some of these include the transnational nature of shipping, the lack of commercial availability of alternative fuels, high costs of retrofitting ships to electrified and hybrid systems, and the lack of clarity of potential regulation and guidelines. 

Global changes in climate will also affect sea conditions and re-routing becoming more common.   In particular, we will see increasing shifts in ship-accessible season length as a result of the warming of polar regions and increasing frequency of intense storms and severe wind and wave conditions, particularly in the tropics. 

In addition to the ships themselves, the port and harbour facilities that they use during their voyages can also be highly vulnerable to climate change due to their coastal location.  Damage to assets from hurricanes and cyclones, suspension of operations due to inclement weather and reduced hours for workforces due to climatic factors will all have important flow on effects to productivity and efficiency of world sea trade.   These climate impacts also affect the coastal and riverine shipyards where vessels are designed, constructed and maintained.

If the maritime sector is to be well-prepared to face these changes, action is needed now to:

  • take practical steps towards decarbonisation including the investigation and use of new technologies;
  • develop a better understanding of the current and future risks to infrastructure and operations from physical climate risks; and
  • take the necessary steps to improve the climate-resilience of assets, operations and workforces. 

Greg Fisk, Global Lead for Climate Risk and Resilience explains:

As a trusted advisor to our clients in the maritime sector, BMT is closely examining how climate change will affect and influence our industry.   This, of course, includes risks such as the costs and methods of decarbonisation, increasing vulnerability of assets to extreme weather and emerging climate regulatory requirements; but also opportunities where there are practical solutions for the sector to adapt now to avoid much greater costs in the future, to provide their customers and supply chains with a low carbon solution and to get ahead of emerging regulations. 

Some key areas where BMT are working with our maritime sector clients to address the climate emergency include:

  • Incorporating electric, hybrid and alternative fuel technologies and other sustainability measures into our ship, ferry, barge and yacht designs;
  • Undertaking climate risk assessments for ports and coastal airports including assessing the exposure and vulnerability of assets and operations to natural hazards such as flooding, sea level rise, storms, heat, and water supply;
  • Assisting our clients with adaptation planning and response including risk disclosure in accordance with the Taskforce on Climate-Related Disclosure (TCFD) guidance and setting management triggers for future action;
  • Undertaking highly detailed coastal hazard and flood hazard numerical modelling and mapping that guides Government policies around future development in coastal and floodplain areas and influences insurance investment
  • Developing practical guidance for marina and small boat harbour operators around decarbonisation, preparing for a low carbon transition and climate adaptation;
  • Assisting clients to investigate ‘blue carbon’ and other environmental rehabilitation projects such as mangrove restoration that can offset carbon emissions and provide a broad range of ecosystem benefits

If any of these topics are of interest, reach out to one of our experts today.


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