© Khunaspix Dreamstime.

The Pacific region is the most dependent on imported fossil fuels in the world with Pacific Island Countries (PICs) importing more than 95%. Despite crippling effects and being the region’s single largest user of imported fuel, transport generally receives very little attention.

The region’s transport issues are unique – tiny economies scattered at the ends of some of the longest transportation routes in the world with the most challenging network to maintain per capita and per sea mile with the available resources to support it.

The priority for Pacific shipping lies on the domestic front. There are an estimated 2,100 domestic ships servicing in the Pacific. Fuel comprises 40-60% of domestic fleet operating costs, and this is projected to increase over time.

International Maritime Organisation (IMO) measures are likely to lead to increased costs and barriers for Oceania. Changes to the MARPOL Annex VI regulations to reduce SOx emissions from global shipping will alone contribute a  60% price increase in marine fuel for PICs at current oil prices by 2020 for all vessels over 400 gross tonnes.

Providing adequate, efficient, and reliable domestic shipping is one of the most difficult challenges for PICs. Coastal and inter-island shipping is generally provided by governments or small, independent shipping companies. Many routes are commercially marginal, many are simply unviable. Governments generally subsidise or provide for these, with ever increasing costs.

The ships used are sometimes unsuitable, often old and in poor condition. Finance markets become increasingly cautious of such investments. Many vessels do not meet recognised safety standards, and should be banned from service, but because they provide essential services to remote communities this is rarely done. Shipping disasters directly attributable to substandard ships are regular.

Transport services are affected by numerous geographical, socio-economic, and technical factors including population mobility, susceptibility to natural disasters and other effects of climate change, national policies and regulations, and international instruments. Additional factors include appropriate vessel/craft operation and maintenance, route profitability, existing petroleum supply (quantity and quality), level of infrastructure, technical capacity, proximity of maintenance facilities, as well as mandatory safety and security auditing.

Sustainable sea transport development barriers

Sea transport is generally considered a private investment issue with public or donor investment restricted exclusively to shore infrastructure (ports), policy and regulation. Financing for shipping assets is notoriously difficult to access. Old ships being replaced with old ships or reliance on donated and often inappropriate vessels is the established norm in most PICs.

Cultural barriers where larger, faster engines and ships are seen as markers of increasing development, while use of technologies such as sails are viewed as stepping away from progress. There is also popular fallacy that renewable energy technology will be slower and less efficient than fossil fuelled counterparts.

Transport is a priority area for Pacific Forum Leaders under the Pacific Plan and its importance as a facilitator of economic growth is recognised. However, sustainable shipping is not mentioned in any Pacific national, regional or development agency energy, transport, or climate change strategy to date.

Such barriers have also been found to be true at a global level where a lack of policies and incentive schemes promoting wind propulsion, lack of financial resources, insufficient collaboration, and conservative and risk-averse attitudes are prevalent.

Practical demonstrations of alternative shipping options are either only in development or have only been adopted on a very small scale. Current regulations, infrastructure, user practices, and maintenance networks are aligned with the existing technology, which means that new technologies often face a mismatch with the established socio-institutional framework.

Looking back to the last oil crisis, there is nothing new to what is a rational approach to a central issue of high strategic importance to most PICs. The current situation is largely a rerun of events of more than 30 years ago. Despite, the greater impact caused by climate change since the 1980s, the sea transport sector is again penalized in the current search for more sustainable solutions for Pacific Island Countries.

Renewable Energy Options

Most initiatives into new technology solutions have focused on large-scale shipping. There is little being done on smaller vessels which service most of the developing world and contribute 26% of all global shipping emissions whilst carrying only 4% of global cargo load.

Primary attention is on alternative fuels such as bio-fuels or bio-gas, wind and solar. In Oceania, bio-fuels/gases from local crop production or by-products offer possibilities. Ultimately, economics of production of such fuels versus the cost of import of fossil fuels will determine how fast development and uptake happens. Solar has potential as an auxiliary to other fuels but is not sufficiently advanced to provide primary propulsion while wind energy has strong potential in a variety of deployments. Hybrid vessels, combining more than one type of energy source, offer a ‘best of both worlds’ approach.

Japanese-based NGO, Greenheart, offers strong potential for extremely cost-effective 220 tonne, 100% renewable energy powered freighters, conservatively displacing around one and a half ton of fuel per day. A pilot vessel is under construction in Bangladesh. Work has been on-going into the use of small scale (4-10dwt) cargo/passenger catamarans for more than three decades in different Pacific locations.

Renewable energy vessels have strong potential for inter-state trade, particularly directly between PICs. Currently, PICs exporters must tranship via Sydney or Auckland making many sub-regional trade opportunities uneconomic and increasing dependency on imports from the developed world. Vessels such as the Greenheart design are capable of direct container shipping of small consignments reliably and regularly, with far lower overheads than the current large containerships.

The international Sustainable Sea-Transport Talanoa 2012 and recent Fiji-centred research led by the University of the South Pacific’s Sustainable Sea-Transport research programme suggest renewable energy shipping offers benefits across multiple well-beings: economic, environment, social, and cultural. It offers a potential future where fleets of smaller but sustainable new ships can replace current single aged large vessel operations. There is potential to revitalise all aspects of the domestic Pacific industry from ship construction to transport operations to maintenance and end re-cycling – a cradle to cradle approach.

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.
  • Clark Dodge

    August 23, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Interesting picture but not really possible as there is almost no tide in the mid pacific, maybe more in the south. Also there a many ships in layup and reserve that could be broken out instead of scrapping. Just a thought.

  • mikey

    August 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Great and interesting article!
    I’m a licensed coastal boatman located currently in southern ca. with pacific connections from Hawaii to marshal islands. I would be interested in a volunteer assignment in marine transport.

  • Bob Horton

    August 24, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    There have been a number of very long discussions about starting smaller inter-island cargo sailing in the Pacific which so far have gone no where. A few have launched in recent years. I am trying to put together a project to start a series of regional inter island shippers in different PICs. Do you have any insight or thoughts that might be of interest?



    • Rob

      September 01, 2013 at 8:03 pm

      I think this is a terrific idea, however, the design of your ship looks questionable.

      If you would like to consider an alternative design, I have a design which I believe will fulfil your requirements perfectly.

      Send me an e-mail if you’re interested.

      • Peter Nuttall

        September 11, 2013 at 12:21 am

        Hi Rob – I’d be really interested in seeing any designs you have

  • Peter Nuttall

    September 11, 2013 at 12:26 am

    my email is [email protected] and there is plenty of information on our ideas on

    USP organised a small talanoa (workshop) last November in Suva. Programme and presentations available here

    THe call for papers for the second Sustainable Sea Transport Talanoa is out at

  • Lee Nhan

    October 31, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Wind Generator works 24 hours a day on demand. Indoor/ outdoor applications due to its closed-cycle design. Closed-cycle reduces noise and reduces the affect of natural wind flow. WIND Generator can be incorporated into building structures, boats, trucks etc 100% renewable