New designs needed but must be fit for purpose

New ship designs are needed urgently if the CO2 reduction goals established by the Paris Agreement on climate change are to be met the Tripartite Shipbuilding Forum said this week at its annual meeting in Nantong, China.

The Forum which brings together shipbuilders, shipowners and classification societies decided after two days of debate that the industry needs to design ships differently and be more technologically innovative to reach world climate goals and counter cyber security risks.

Taking the issue of ship design, although meeting the aims of the Paris agreement (from which incidentally shipping is legally excluded) was an ambition, there are increasing concerns that new regulations governing ship designs aimed at further reducing CO2 emissions could potentially have adverse effects on the safe operation of ships.

According to a statement issued by the Forum, one example would be any legal requirements that led to a further reduction of engine power. The concern is that ships could get into problems during bad weather if the engine is insufficiently powered, putting both the crew and the environment at serious risk. The Tripartite meeting participants agreed that the safety of life at sea must always remain paramount.

While some within the industry and almost all of the environmental lobby groups outside of it focus on CO2 emissions and their supposed effect on the climate, it should not be overlooked that shipowners have always sought ever more efficient vessels. There is after all a very strong link between emissions and fuel consumption and the latter is always something that owners have sought to reduce.

However, the Forum’s concern that further reduction of engine power is something that needs to be prevented inevitably means that the focus must shift to hull form or construction materials. Both of these are areas which have also received attention over time sometimes to effect but also with occasional disastrous results.

Thankfully the weight saving practices of the quite recent past that saw the loss of the focsle and the use of high tensile steel being cited as root causes in many marine casualties are not likely to be repeated. The disappearance of the bulbous bow seems to be accelerating as more and more ship designs are produced that do away with it – this at least is not likely to be a contributory factor in many incidents.

Novel designs on the other hand are also not without problems. Only recently this has been demonstrated in the criminalisation of the master and pilot of the car carrier City of Rotterdam which in 2015 was involved in a collision on the River Humber in the UK. The official MAIB investigation into the collision cited the unusual spherical design of the ship’s bridge as a causal factor. The bridge design was not for visual impact but was a conscious effort to reduce wind resistance and thus reduce fuel consumption.

While shipowners will no doubt continue to seek more fuel-efficient designs they will also certainly not lose sight of the fact that a ship is primarily there to serve the purpose of carrying cargo safely and profitably from A to B. Anything that compromises its ability should be avoided at all costs. Regulators too must also recognise that rigid adherence to ambitions of driving down emissions must be tempered with recognition of what is actually possible.

Image courtesy: Fleetmon