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Visualizing the Prolific Plastic Problem in Our Oceans

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In February of 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on along the picturesque shoreline of Cabo de Palos in Spain.

Officials noted that the whale was unusually thin, and a necropsy confirmed that the whale died from an acute abdominal infection. Put simply, the whale ingested so much plastic debris – 67 lbs worth – that its digestive system ruptured.

The Plastic Problem, Visualized

Today’s infographic comes to us from Custom Made, and it helps put the growing marine debris problem in perspective.

The Pacific's Prolific Plastic Problem

A Spiraling Problem

The equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic enters the sea every minute and the volume of ocean plastic is expected to triple within a decade.

Every stray bit of trash that enters the ocean, from a frayed fishing net off the coast of the Philippines to a plastic bottle cap from an Oakland storm drain, all end up circulating in rotating ocean currents called gyres.

For this reason, the Pacific Gyre is now better known by another name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Sum of Many Plastic Parts

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is often misrepresented online as a literal raft of floating trash stretching as far as the eye can see. The real situation is less visually dramatic, but it’s what we can’t see – microplastic – that’s the biggest problem. Tiny fragments of plastic pose the biggest risks to humans because it’s easy for them to enter the food chain after being ingested by marine life.

While derelict fishing gear such as nets and floats are a contributor to the problem, land-based activity accounts for the majority of the garbage circulating in the ocean. Most of the world’s countries have ocean coastlines, and with so many jurisdictions and varying degrees of environmental scrutiny, truly curbing the flow of plastic isn’t realistic in the near term.

No Solution on the Horizon

Garbage patches have formed deep in the middle of international waters, so there is no clear cut way to decide who is responsible for cleaning up the mess. Organizations like The Ocean Cleanup are researching ocean gyres and providing better insight into the extent of the plastic problem. The Ocean Cleanup is best positioned to make a real impact, though executing on their vision will require vast resources and substantial funding.

Nobody likes seeing whales wash up on shore, but for now, a fully-scaled solution may still far out on the horizon.

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Environment

IMO 2020: The Big Shipping Shake-Up

IMO 2020, which sets ambitious emissions limits, is about to shake up maritime shipping. Today’s graphic covers the environmental and economic impacts

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IMO 2020: The Big Shipping Shake-Up

Over 90% of all global trade takes place on our oceans.

Unfortunately, the network of 59,000 vessels powering international commerce runs on sulfur-laden bunker fuel, and resulting emissions are causing problems on dry land.

As today’s infographic by Breakwave Advisors demonstrates, new emissions regulations taking effect in 2020 will have a big impact on the world’s massive fleet of marine shipping vessels.

The Regulatory Impact

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) – the UN agency responsible for ensuring a clean, safe, and efficient global shipping industry – will be implementing new regulations that will have massive impact on maritime shipping.

The regulations, dubbed IMO 2020, will enforce a 0.5% sulfur emissions cap worldwide starting January 1, 2020 ─ a dramatic decrease from the current emissions cap of 3.5%.

Here are a few ways marine fuel will likely be affected by these regulations:

  • High-sulfur fuel oil will drop in price as the demand drops dramatically after January 1, 2020
  • Diesel, a low-sulfur fuel oil, will be in higher demand and should see a price increase
  • Refiners should also expect higher profits as refining runs increase to satisfy the new regulations

The Economic Impact

IMO 2020 will be one of the most dramatic fuel regulation changes ever implemented, with a significant impact on the global economy.

New regulations are certain to influence freight rates ─ the fees charged for delivering cargo from place to place. These rates can fluctuate depending on:

  • Time and distance between ports
  • Weight and density of the cargo
  • Freight classification
  • Mode of transport
  • Tariffs and taxes
  • Fuel costs

Rising fuel costs means rising freight rates, with much of these costs being passed to consumers.

In a full compliance scenario, we estimate the total impact to consumer wallets in 2020 could be around US$240 billion.

─ Goldman Sachs

The Environmental Impact

Not surprisingly, the world’s 59,000 transport ships, oil tankers, and cargo ships have a consequential impact on the environment.

Bunker fuel accounts for 7% of transportation oil consumption (~3.5 million barrels/day). Burning this fuel generates about 90% of all sulfur oxide and dioxide (SOx and SO2) emissions globally. In fact, the world’s 15 largest ships produce more SOx and SO2 emissions than every car combined.

These sulfur emissions can cause several harmful side effects on land ─ acid rain, smog, crop failures, and many respiratory illnesses such as lung cancer and asthma.

Changing Currents in the Shipping Sector

As IMO 2020’s implementation date nears, shippers have a few courses of action to become compliant and manage costs.

1) Switch to low-sulfur fuel

Bunker fuel use in the shipping industry was 3.5 million barrels per day in 2018, representing roughly 5% of global fuel demand.

Annual bunker fuel costs are predicted to rise by US$60 billion in 2020, a nearly 25% increase from 2019. Price increases this significant will directly impact freight rates ─ with no guarantee that fuel will always be available.

2) Slower Travel, Less Capacity

The costs of refining low-sulfur fuel will increase fuel prices. To offset this, shippers often travel at slower speeds.

For example, large ships might burn 280-300 metric tons of high-sulfur fuel oil (HSFO) a day at high speeds, but only 80-90 metric tons a day at slower speeds. Slower travel may cut costs and help reduce emissions, but it also decreases the capacity these vessels can transport due to longer travel times, which shrinks overall profit margins.

3) Refueling Detours

Adequate fuel supply will be a primary concern for shippers once IMO 2020 takes effect. Fuel shortages would cause inefficiencies and increase freight rates even more, as ships would be forced to detour to refuel more often.

4) Installing Scrubbers

A loophole of IMO 2020 is that emissions are regulated, not the actual sulfur content of fuel itself.

Rather than burning more expensive fuel, many shippers may decide to “capture” sulfur before it enters the environment by using scrubbers, devices that transfer sulfur emissions from exhaust to a disposal unit and discharges the emissions.

With IMO 2020 looming, only 1% of the global shipping fleet has been retrofitted with scrubbers. Forecasts for scrubber installations by mid-2020 run close to 5% of the current ships on the water.

There are a few reasons for such low numbers of installations. First, scrubbers are still somewhat unproven in maritime applications, so shippers are taking a “wait and see” approach. As well, even if a ship does qualify for a retrofit, cost savings won’t take effect until several years after installation. On the plus side, ships with scrubbers installed will still be able to use the existing, widely-available supply of bunker fuel.

Moving Forward

No matter which route shippers choose to take, the short-term impact is almost certainly going to mean higher freight rates for the marine shipping industry.

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Chart of the Week

All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart

Just 15 countries are responsible for almost three quarters of the world’s carbon emissions. But what does this look like per capita, and over time?

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All the World’s Carbon Emissions in One Chart

Two degrees Celsius may not seem like much, but on our planet, it could be the difference between thriving life and a disastrous climate.

Over two centuries of burning fossil fuels have added up, and global decision-makers and business leaders are focusing in on carbon emissions as a key issue.

Emissions by Country

This week’s chart uses the most recent data from Global Carbon Atlas to demonstrate where most of the world’s CO₂ emissions come from, sorted by country.

RankCountryEmissions in 2017 (MtCO₂)% of Global Emissions
🌐 Rest of World10,02827.7%
#1🇨🇳 China9,83927.2%
#2🇺🇸 United States5,26914.6%
#3🇮🇳 India2,4676.8%
#4🇷🇺 Russia1,6934.7%
#5🇯🇵 Japan1,2053.3%
#6🇩🇪 Germany7992.2%
#7🇮🇷 Iran6721.9%
#8🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia6351.8%
#9🇰🇷 South Korea6161.7%
#10🇨🇦 Canada5731.6%
#11🇲🇽 Mexico4901.4%
#12🇮🇩 Indonesia4871.3%
#13🇧🇷 Brazil4761.3%
#14🇿🇦 South Africa4561.3%
#15🇹🇷 Turkey4481.2%
🌐 Top 1526,12572.2%

In terms of absolute emissions, the heavy hitters are immediately obvious. Large economies such as China, the United States, and India alone account for almost half the world’s emissions. Zoom out a little further, and it’s even clearer that just a handful of countries are responsible for the majority of emissions.

Of course, absolute emissions don’t tell the full story. The world is home to over 7.5 billion people, but they aren’t distributed evenly across the globe. How do these carbon emissions shake out on a per capita basis?

Here are the 20 countries with the highest emissions per capita:

Emissions per capita
Source: Global Carbon Atlas. Note: We’ve only included places with a population above one million, which excludes islands and areas such as Curaçao, Brunei, Luxembourg, Iceland, Greenland, and Bermuda.

Out of the original 30 countries in the main visualization, six countries show up again as top CO₂ emitters when adjusted for population count: Saudi Arabia, the United States, Canada, South Korea, Russia, and Germany.

The CO₂ Conundrum

We know that rapid urbanization and industrialization have had an impact on carbon emissions entering the atmosphere, but at what rate?

Climate data scientist Neil Kaye answers the question from a different perspective, by mapping what percentage of emissions have been created during your lifetime since the Industrial Revolution:

Your Age% of Total Global Emissions
15 years oldYou've been alive for more than 30% of emissions
30 years oldYou've been alive for more than 50% of emissions
85 years oldYou've been alive for more than 90% of emissions

Put another way, the running total of emissions is growing at an accelerating rate. This is best seen in the dramatic shortening between the time periods taken for 400 billion tonnes of CO₂ to enter the atmosphere:

  • First period: 217 years (1751 to 1967)
  • Second period: 23 years (1968 to 1990)
  • Third period: 16 years (1991 to 2006)
  • Fourth period: 11 years (2007 to 2018)

In order to be a decarbonised economy by 2050, we have to bend the (emissions) curve by 2020… Not only is it urgent and necessary, but actually we are very nicely on our way to achieving it.

Christiana Figueres, Convenor of Mission 2020

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