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HomeTechnology & ScienceIs travelling by cargo ship a low-emissions alternative to flying?

Is travelling by cargo ship a low-emissions alternative to flying?

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This week:

  • Is travelling by cargo ship a low-emissions alternative to flying?
  • A hydrogen-powered train hits the rails in Quebec
  • Indigenous tourism — which offers sustainability and cultural connection — is booming in Canada

Is travelling by cargo ship a low-emissions alternative to flying?

(Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

If you live by the ocean, you’ve probably seen big cargo ships hanging out by the harbour, hauling a lot of the goods we end up consuming.

Peter Easthope, who lives on North Pender Island in B.C., recently contacted the What On Earth radio show with an unusual question: Could these vessels be an environmentally friendly alternative to flying?

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate Portal, aviation’s share of global emissions is currently five per cent and growing every year. Aircraft emissions also occur higher in the atmosphere, which can result in an increased warming effect. The portal says that while cargo ships emit carbon (largely by burning heavy fuel oil), they carry large amounts of freight, making them the most efficient way to move cargo.

Jonn Axsen, director of Simon Fraser University’s Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team (START), agrees and says in theory, adding a few passengers wouldn’t make much of a difference.

“So you want to use [cargo ships] for passenger travel? Sure,” he said. “If it’s a ship that’s already going [to a destination] and all you’re doing is using an extra crew room that you’re in, you haven’t added any energy use to that at all. It’s going to be fine.”

  • This week on Cross Country Checkup, our Ask Me Anything guest is David Suzuki. What questions do you have for him about the environment and climate change? Fill out the details on this form to get your questions in early.

Of course, cargo ships take a lot more time to get to their destination. A one-way trip between Halifax and Antwerp, for example, takes 12 days, compared to less than 24 hours by plane (there are typically stopovers).

So if you wanted to hitch a ride on a cargo ship, how would you go about it? 

Aranui is one of the few cargo ship companies that will take your call and sell you a ticket. But if you want help co-ordinating the logistics, some booking companies will take care of that for you. One of them is Cptn Zeppos, a Belgium-based company owned by Joris Van Bree. Cptn Zeppos will book and deliver your tickets, take care of the necessary paperwork and arrange transportation to and from the port.

But it’s far from cheap. Prices vary depending on your route, but Van Bree says a standard cabin in a cargo ship costs about $140 per day. A round trip for Halifax-Antwerp with Cptn Zeppos, which includes stops in ports along the way, three meals a day and a standard double cabin, would take 37 days and cost more than $4,000.

Despite the time, cost and inconvenience relative to flying, Van Bree says he sees growing demand for this type of travel. Aside from environmental reasons, he has noticed that some people just want to get away from their cellphones and connections to their life on land.

“The right people will say, ‘Ah, interesting, I can watch the ocean all day, all night, I can watch the stars,'” said Van Bree. “Most [passengers] take books, but they don’t even read because they’re too busy just looking and enjoying being aboard.”

One person who has tried it is Tal Oran, 27, who goes by the handle TheTravelingClatt on YouTube. Because of a fear of flying, the U.S.-based influencer has experimented with alternative methods of travel, including cargo ships.

“The experience was interesting,” Oran said in an interview with What on Earth. “The cabin was phenomenal — it was kind of like a little condo with a nice bathroom, a big bedroom.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. On the open seas, there is always the potential of rough weather. “The ship was rocking for four days non-stop,” said Oran. “I couldn’t pee normally, I couldn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t get seasick but … you’re just wobbly and dizzy.”

A few What on Earth listeners shared their impressions of cargo ship travel.

“I had a wonderful experience on a freighter in 1964, and yes, we were on the edge of a storm … I was 24 years old and it was an adventure,” said Pauline Ciaffone.

Andrea Lawrence from Logan Lake, B.C., said she and her partner began travelling the world in 1970, during which time they spent 19 days on a freighter heading across the Atlantic to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. 

“Our room was spacious, and being an Italian freighter, the food was a parade of delicious pizzas, ravioli and lasagna,” said Lawrence. “But yes, in November, the sea was stormy enough to throw us out of our beds…. Definitely an unforgettable adventure for two 20-year-olds!”

Given all this, flying is probably too convenient and affordable to abandon entirely. 

Easthope said he would seriously consider cargo ships as a way to travel. He’s retired, has time on his hands and says he prefers boats to planes anyway. But when asked why he prefers cargo ships over traditional cruise ships, Easthope is quite direct.

“Cruise ships are too ostentatious for me. I don’t like getting assailed with food.”

Rohit Joseph


Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. 

Check out our radio show and podcast. For many, summer is a time to enjoy the outdoors. But for others, it comes with fear and anxiety — just how hot will it get? Two years after the heat dome that scorched B.C., we look at why hundreds died, and what can be done to prevent this sort of disaster in the future. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

Watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here.


Reader feedback

We received a lot of mail about our article last week on lake geothermal.

A number of readers, including Martin Gratton, wondered about the environmental impact of adding heat from your house to a lake.

Water has a very high heat capacity, the temperature of the geothermal loop embedded in the water isn’t very high and relatively little heat is actually discharged from a home. Because of that, experts we talked to thought this type of system would have no real impact on the water temperature.

“There is no thermal interference with aquatic ecosystems. The pipe is really only exchanging energy with a thin layer of water surrounding the pipe itself,” said Jeff Hunter, president of the Ontario Geothermal Association.

Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., has written about harnessing the heat from nuclear power, a much bigger heat source that is sometimes discharged into lakes

In an email response, Buongiorno wrote that the impact of heat pumps on lakes is a “valid hypothetical concern.” He said the effect depends on the amount of heat discharged and the size of the lake, but “if I were to guess, I’d say it’s probably a negligible impact.”

Reader Francis Bordeleau asked what liquid is in the geothermal loop, and the potential impact of it leaking into the lake.

Hunter said it’s typically water containing 20 to 25 per cent ethanol. That level is non-toxic enough to drink, but would quickly be diluted to much lower levels in the event of a leak. Bigger geothermal systems use propylene glycol, Hunter said. 

Studies have found it to be “non-toxic to essentially every aquatic and terrestrial animal and plant species tested.”

Judy Osborne wrote:

“Interesting article on using the lake for a geothermal heat source. Could urban areas harness the heat from storm and wastewater?”

Yes, in fact, they can. One community that has been doing this for a long time is Vancouver’s False Creek, which is largely heated with wastewater heat recovery. Similar infrastructure is planned for Halifax and Toronto.

John Rice wrote:

“I live in the country and am on a well/septic tank system for my water/waste disposal. Would it be possible to use the well water as the source instead of a ground installation? My well is 150 feet deep, so the temperature of the water should be pretty constant.” 

Jeff Hunter of the Ontario Geothermal Association says you “absolutely” can use a well as a heat source for a geothermal system. 

Typically, you would run that water straight through the heat pump and then return it to the environment after. That makes it an “open loop” system, unlike lake and ground systems, which have closed loops. 

Because of that, Hunter says, regulations surrounding well and groundwater systems are stricter. Installation standards also require the heat exchanger be at least three metres from a septic system to prevent the freezing temperatures in the heat exchanger from interfering with septic operation.

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.caHave a compelling personal story about climate change you want to share with CBC News? Pitch a First Person column here.

Also: With the anniversary of post-tropical storm Fiona fast approaching, CBC P.E.I. is looking for Islanders who want to share their personal journey around climate change and climate anxiety. Get in touch at whatonearth@cbc.ca.


The Big Picture: Hydrogen trains

A passenger train on a track.
(Alstom)

The first hydrogen-powered train in North America is taking riders on a 2½-hour trip through central Quebec this summer. It’s a demonstration that launched earlier this month to show how electricity stored as hydrogen can replace diesel fuel on railways where installing electrified rails or overhead wires would be challenging.

The tourist train built by French company Alstom runs from Montmorency Falls in Quebec City to Baie-Saint-Paul — partway along the Train de Charlevoix route — on Wednesday through Sunday until Sept. 30, carrying up to 120 people in two rail cars.

The train uses about 50 kilograms of hydrogen a day, estimates Serge Harnois, CEO of Harnois Énergies, which supplies the fuel. That replaces about 500 litres of diesel that would be burned during the journey. While fossil fuels may be peaking, “we are at the beginning of the history of hydrogen,” said Harnois.

The same model of train, known as the Coradia iLint, has previously carried passengers in eight European countries. Germany purchased a version that uses Canadian-made fuel cells for a hydrogen-only route last year.

Alstom said this week that the commercial operation of the train will allow it and its partners to see what’s needed to develop “an ecosystem for hydrogen propulsion technology” in North America. 

Emily Chung

Read the full story here.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Indigenous tourism — which offers sustainability and cultural connection — is booming in Canada

Two people with bicycles, with mountains in the background.
(Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

On a sunny afternoon, a group of cyclists tours through Banff National Park, stopping midway to hike through the park’s Sundance Canyon. 

During a break, guide Heather Black leads the group through a smudge ceremony, followed by a snack of Alberta-made pemmican strips.

The trip was a trial run for a new type of tour offered through Black’s guided hiking business, Buffalo Stone Woman Iinisskimmaakii.

Demand for that side of her business is already strong, but after connecting with a Banff-based bike tour operator, the two joined forces to take Black’s tour out on two wheels.

Black, an avid hiker, was inspired to start her business after hearing from others out on the trail who were interested in learning about how Indigenous people connect to the land. She said demand is high for Indigenous tourism in the Rocky Mountains, a trend that’s also unfolding across the country.

“I feel that I connect with many people that come on tour with us,” said Black, a member of the Kainai Nation, about 200 kilometres south of Calgary. “When we have that cross-cultural experience, I think it binds us.”

Before the pandemic hit, the sector was on a steep growth trajectory, and at its peak in 2019, contributed $1.9 billion to the country’s GDP, according to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.

Although hit hard by the pandemic, the industry has rebounded faster than expected, said Keith Henry, the organization’s president and CEO. This year, it’s expected to bring in $1.5 billion, and could see revenues triple by 2030 if demand from domestic and international travellers continues to rise at the same pace, he said. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen as much interest and demand for Indigenous tourism as we do today.” 

Henry credits that to an unprecedented interest among tourists in sustainability, Indigenous culture and history.

Tim Patterson, owner-operator of Zuc’min Guiding, launched his Calgary-based business right around when the pandemic hit. Luckily, the business survived, and he says that lately, it’s been “flat-out.” 

Patterson specializes in guided hikes of the Alberta and B.C. mountains, his most popular being a guided tour of the Athabasca Glacier, about 100 km from Jasper National Park.

His clients are an even split of Canadian and international visitors. They’re typically people who are drawn to the mountains but are seeking an experience outside the usual hotspots, he said.

“People want an authentic experience and want something a little different than what they normally get,” said Patterson, who is a member of the Lower Nicola Indian Band in B.C.

Many operators say Americans have become a key part of their customer base. They have absorbed headlines from across the border about Indigenous history and Canada’s residential school system, Henry said, leading to curiosity among tourists to experience Canada in a different way. 

“It’s not something I think we should shy away from,” he said. “We want to help people understand the true history and story in a healthy and a good way.”

Increasingly, the industry is trying to determine how much of a threat extreme weather — wildfires in particular — will be. The summer of 2023 is already shaping up to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in years, which poses a major risk to businesses as smoke blankets the country.

“When there’s smoke in the air, people don’t want to go into an area and they cancel plans,” said Henry, who noted that businesses in northern communities have been especially hard-hit. 

“We obviously don’t have the resources to solve all that, but it is having an impact and we’re monitoring it closely.”

Despite the challenges, there’s plenty of optimism about the future of Indigenous tourism in Canada. 

Travel Alberta, for instance, recently gave $6 million to Indigenous Tourism Alberta to support the industry’s development.

The crown corporation’s chief commercial officer, Jon Mamela, says interest in Indigenous tourism “has never been higher.” He hopes the funding will enable Indigenous-owned businesses to become a greater part of the province’s overall sector. 

Black has goals beyond just expanding her own business. As a guide, and in her other job as a business coach, she hopes to inspire others. 

“There’s a high need for Indigenous tourism, as we’re the original storytellers of this land, and we connect to this land in a different way than many other people out there.”

Paula Duhatschek

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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