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VIDEO: Green shipping and how AI could decarbonize travel

August 24, 2023

The Week in Sustainability – August 21–25

Contrails in the sky, which cause as much as 30% of aviation’s contribution to global warming

Global warming’s ripple effects can be seen everywhere month-by-month and minute-by-minute—from July heatwaves to altered coastal ecosystems. And that’s just this summer alone. But the challenge also brings forth innovation—and this week, we’re focusing on a couple of stories about promising innovations in marine cargo shipping and aviation. 

Marvel in marine shipping

Traditionally derived from natural gas, methanol is emerging as a potential alternative to heavy fuel oil in marine cargo shipping. The advantages? Methanol emits 80% less nitrogen oxide and 99% less sulfur oxide. But, the carbon emissions from conventional methanol remain a concern. Enter biomass-based methanol, a greener variant that emits 60–90% less carbon than its conventional counterpart. 

While challenges loom in the form of higher costs and availability (unsurprisingly, ships tailored for this unique fuel also come with a heftier price tag), there’s good news, too. Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, is eyeing ambitious carbon targets, signaling a potentially burgeoning demand for biomass-based methanol.

But marine cargo shipping isn’t just eyeing the future—it’s also looking to the past for sustainable inspiration. Sails are back in vogue! The Pyxis Ocean, the first wind-powered commercial cargo ship, is a testament to this resurgence. These modern sails, reminiscent of wind turbines, can help ships save nearly three tons of fuel daily. Even more promising, existing ships can be retrofitted with these sails, which paves the way for a future where cargo ships harness both wind power and bio-based methanol, heralding a massive reduction in shipping emissions.

Clearing the skies: AI in aviation

Now let’s shift gears to aviation. Beyond sustainable aviation fuel lies another promising avenue—the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

Google and American Airlines are collaborating to harness AI-based predictions to minimize contrail formation—the cloud-like trails left behind by planes that trap heat and account for a whopping 30% of aviation’s contribution to global warming.

So where does AI come in? By leveraging vast amounts of weather data, flight paths, and satellite imagery, Google’s Climate and Energy team can predict contrail formations. Pilots can then adjust altitudes, similar to how they evade turbulence, to bypass humid layers, thus reducing contrails. Initial tests cut expected contrails by 50%.

While sustainable transportation alternatives aren’t without their challenges, the combined might of innovation, determination, and technological advances like AI paints a hopeful picture for a greener future. 

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1. Dezeen, “Pioneering wind-powered cargo ship charts course for greener shipping,” Accessed August 24, 2023

2. Energy Monitor, “AI cuts climate-warming contrails of planes by 54% – Google study,” Accessed August 24, 2023

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Hannah Asofsky
Hannah Asofsky is a sustainability data analyst at Sustain.Life.
Sustain.Life Team
Sustain.Life’s teams of sustainability practitioners and experts often collaborate on articles, videos, and other content.
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