South Pacific plan for low-carbon ships

Parties to a planned ship research pact: University of the South Pacific’s deputy vice-chancellor Derrick Armstrong (left) and CNCo’s general manager, sustainable development, Simon Bennett (credit: CNCo) Parties to a planned ship research pact: University of the South Pacific’s deputy vice-chancellor Derrick Armstrong (left) and CNCo’s general manager, sustainable development, Simon Bennett (credit: CNCo)

Singapore-based China Navigation Company (CNCo) is linking with academia for research into a cost-effective vessel concept with a low carbon footprint suited to the South Pacific island economies, writes David Tinsley.

Operator of a modern fleet of multipurpose cargo ships, container vessels and bulk carriers, and with an extensive liner-type service network encompassing the region, CNCo - the parent of Swire Shipping and Swire Bulk - has signed a memorandum of agreement with the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji to explore practical options for small general cargo vessels producing fewer emissions. The partners in the endeavour, dubbed Project Cerulean, will undertake feasibility studies for a new generation of ships that would be within the economic reach of the island nations involved.

The ultimate objective is the development of a new class of small cargo vessel which, once proven to be commercially viable to build and operate, can be scaled-up in numbers to provide a cost-effective solution for currently marginalised and remote Pacific Island Communities and Territories (PICT). The PICT designation that refers to the island groups of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

In the immediate term, the project aims to design, build and trial a low-carbon Project Ship to service the PICT region. This work will be carried out in partnership with USP’s Micronesian Centre for Sustainable Transport (MCST).

Simon Bennett, CNCo’s general manager in charge of sustainable development, said that the company was looking towards an initial investment of around US$2.5m in the scheme, and expressed the hope that construction of a pilot “low cost, low carbon and low tech freighter” could take place in a South Pacific shipyard.

“We want to raise economic capacity in the South Pacific, as the vessel will be able to service the outlying communities in the region, which are not currently on mainline routes. This really is our way of giving back to the community, as we will be building the freighter specially for the South Pacific,” stated Mr Bennett. USP’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and international, Professor Derrick Armstrong, said that collaboration with the private sector was critical for the university, and that both parties shared common values and goals as regards sustainable transport and solutions. USP is supported by 12 Pacific island countries.

Earlier this month, the Pacific Islands Transport Forum was held at the university’s Laucala campus, at Suva, on Fiji. Hosted by the governments of Fiji and the Marshall Islands, key aims and priorities of the Forum include transport decarbonisation, and setting pathways for national action plans under a coordinated regional programme.

On that occasion, Professor Armstrong indicated that Project Cerulean had been in the gestation for several years, and welcomed the collaboration with CNCo “to research, build and trial a low-carbon freighter as demonstration of a more appropriate and affordable maritime transport solution serving inter-regional routes.”

The university had established the Sustainable Sea Transport Research Programme in 2013 under its research clusters strategy. Last year, the university opened the Micronesian Centre for Sustainable Transport (MCST) at its Long Island Campus in Majuro, as a joint initiative with the Marshall Islands’ government, to serve as a catalyst to drive transition to low-carbon transport in the region, starting with domestic shipping.

The Pacific island region encompassed by PICT is almost totally reliant on sea transport for essential imports and other vital transfers of people and goods.

However, and especially at the domestic level, it has always been difficult to find long-term, sustainable solutions for energy-efficient vessels at a viable cost. This has hit developing economies and the delivery of essential services, not least for the more remote communities and islands. Many routes using conventional shipping arrangements are uneconomic, and can only be maintained through increasingly high government subsidies.

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