China spoils the launch of world’s first electric cargo ship by using it to haul coal

Truly emissions-free shipping will require rapidly shifting off of coal.

Siberian coal awaits loading onto a ship bound for China in North Korea, July 2016. CREDIT: AP/Eric Talmadge
Siberian coal awaits loading onto a ship bound for China in North Korea, July 2016. CREDIT: AP/Eric Talmadge

The good news is that China, the world leader in electric vehicle production and use, has launched the world’s first all-electric, 2,200-ton cargo ship. The bad news is that the groundbreaking vessel is being used to haul coal.

Since shipping is poorly regulated and runs almost entirely on heavy fuel oil, the trillion-dollar industry is a major polluter. Major ports are notorious for having unhealthy air.

And even though the industry generates some 3 percent of global carbon pollution, the 2015 Paris climate agreement doesn’t even cover shipping, since it targets emissions by nations, not transport between them.

That leaves much of the job of cleaning up the industry to individual companies. So it should be a welcome moment that China’s Guangzhou Shipyard International has launched “the world’s first electric ship with a capacity” of 2,200 tons, as the state-run Global Times reported earlier this month.

CREDIT: ChinaNews.com/Peng Yonggui

The ship is short-haul: It can travel about 50 miles with its 1,000 lithium batteries after two-hour charge, which is the loading and unloading time for the ship, state news site ChinaNews.com reports. So it can be charged while it is docking.

Sadly, the Chinese spoiled the launch of this otherwise green cargo ship by using it to transport coal for electricity generation on the Pearl River in Guangdong Province. The ship can carry up to 2,300 tons of coal, though ChinaNews.com reports such vessels could in the future be used for “passenger ships, ro-ro ships [roll-on/roll-off vessels carrying wheeled cargo] engineering vessels” and similar purposes.

“This kind of ship takes into consideration the harmony between humans and nature and can protect water quality and marine life, and should be copied by other ships sailing on local rivers,” Chinese environmentalist Wang Yongchen told the Global Times.

Certainly running on electricity of any kind is better for the local environment than burning heavy fuel oil. But moving rapidly off of coal generation is the only way China can ensure that the total lifecycle emissions of transporting cargo on an all-electric ship is beneficial to both their country’s air quality and the world’s effort to preserve a livable climate.