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Wind-powered Cargo Vessel Holds Hope for a Greener Future

The Grain de Sail is bringing cargo sailboats back in style

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© Daniel Hubbell

Floating in the Brooklyn Pier One15 with the Manhattan skyline silhouetting its two 79-foot masts, the cargo sailboat Grain de Sail makes for a dramatic sight. While a wind-powered cargo vessel may seem like a 19th Century idea, the Grain de Sail may be a herald of a greener future rather than a nostalgic nod to the past. Thanks to a combination of sails, solar panels, wind turbines and hydropower, the Grain de Sail crossed the Atlantic with a cargo of 18,000 bottles of organic French wines using just a little more than two gallons of diesel fuel. In contrast, the average small car in America holds 12 gallons and a single large container ship can burn 200 tons of heavy fuel oil each day. As we count the increasing cost of inaction from the climate crisis, that seems like a good change to me.

I was lucky to visit the Grain de Sail on May 18, 2022, midway through its stay in New York, coinciding with yet another virtual meeting of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) sharpening discussions on shipping emissions. One question heavy on my mind both on and off the ship: How do we get from one cargo ship carrying two containers’ worth of goods to an entire fleet carrying a far greater share of cargo? While the Grain de Sail’s masts may not be perfect for a large bulk carrier full of iron ore (as we and our fellow wind advocates at Pacific Environmentnoted in last year’s All Aboard), there are many wind-based propulsion solutions that can improve efficiency and reduce fuel consumption for vessels of all sizes. Even if it’s ultimately paired with a renewable fuel like ammonia or hydrogen, harnessing the wind is going to play a key role if we are to decarbonize this sector quickly.

Just as key will be new regulations and measures that push the shipping industry to zero emissions, and we caught a glimpse of what those could be during the IMO meeting as well. After agreeing to a very weak short-term measure in November 2020, the discussions last week focused on new measures that could take effect by 2030. The most ambitious potential new measure remains a levy beginning at 100 dollars per ton of carbon that the Marshall Islands and other island states proposed. This could be established alongside other technical measures like a low-carbon standard for shipping fuel to improve uptake of zero-emission fuels.

By the end of the week one thing seemed likely, a price on shipping fuel’s carbon emissions even if it doesn’t end up being the exact levy proposed by the Marshall Islands. Regardless of what the price ends up being, it must be ambitious enough to close the gap between fossil fuels and more renewable options. Still, one of the best options to cut shipping emissions also remains the simplest: raise the ambition of the short-term measure and work to bring down emissions by at least 50% this decade. Whatever the pathway, it’s clear the adoption of wind propulsion should be incentivized and encouraged as part of the solution.

Grain de Sail sailboat on the water
© Daniel Hubbell

Raising ambition has become a growing theme at the IMO generally. In April 2021, U.S. Special Envoy for the Climate John Kerry committed to working with the IMO to reach zero emissions by 2050. Under the leadership of the Marshall Islands, the United States and Denmark, 31 additional countries from Sri Lanka to Panama have echoed this call. This comes alongside other increasingly vocal calls from outside the IMO for ambitious maritime climate policy, like the Climate Vulnerable Forum’s Dhaka-Glasgow Declaration endorsing the Marshalls’ carbon levy.

It is becoming clear which way the wind is blowing.

Beyond its potential to help usher in a zero-emissions future, the Grain de Sail also represents a change in mindset that needs support and engagement from all of us as consumers and governments. The ship makes a point never to travel without cargo, a far cry from the waste of today’s empty containers on a westward voyage to China. It’s also slower than the average cargo ship, another shift away from the ”just in time” mentality that leaves ships idling outside of Los Angeles or Long Beach harbor, spewing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. Building more vessels that travel at this slower speed regardless of using wind power or conventional engines will also lead to quieter oceans and less air pollution.

On Sunday, May 22, 2022, the Grain de Sail departed Brooklyn for the Dominican Republic, now laden with a cargo of medical necessities like wheelchairs. From there the ship will turn back to France, loaded with green coffee and chocolate, before repeating the cycle again. Work has already begun on her sister ship, three times the size of the Grain de Sail. Other wind ships, like the Neoliner, are also taking sail and promise to deliver cargo to ports around the world. The age of sail may be in our past but coupled with a more serious climate week at the IMO, it’s also the future I most want to see.

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