The Panama Canal expansion will allow bigger ships with more cargo to pass from the Pacific to the Caribbean, which could result in less greenhouse gas emissions per volume of cargo shipped.
Paul Stott and Peter Wright of Newcastle University believes the $6 billion canal expansion will allow new ships to be built beyond the 32.3 meter (106 feet) breadth restriction, known as the panamax. Wider ships can carry more cargo with proportionately less fuel, the researchers stated in the International Journal of Maritime Engineering.
"This is a great example of unintended consequences," said Stott in a press release.
"The potential savings in fuel costs are substantial, as is the consequent reduction in emissions, potentially saving up to 16% per tonne-mile," said Stott.
"This is important given that the International Maritime Organization estimates that shipping was responsible for about 2.7% of global emissions of CO2 in 2007 but warns that this may rise to between 12% and 18% by 2050 if the shipping industry does not take major steps to reduce emissions," Stott said.
Building bigger ships doesn't require new technologies.
"Alternative fuels and new technologies will be vital for driving the marine industry forward to a more sustainable future but this is a change we can make now through the application of existing technologies that are well proven," said Stott.
The Panana Canal expansion is expected to be completed in 2014. A strike paralyzed construction last week, but was resolved after workers' minimum wage was increased from $2.90 to $3.34 and hour, reported the BBC.
Currently, less than 300 specially trained pilots take more than 30 ships a day through the canal, generating $800 million per year in profits for Panama, according to PanamaGuide.com. A record 322.1 million tons of cargo passed through the canal in 2011, reported the Journal of Commerce. The expansion should increase capacity to more than 600 million tons.
Specialized pilots train for years to master the ability to maneuver massive ships through the tight spots of the canal, according to an informational plaque at the Panama Canal visitors center.
Two container ships squeeze through Miraflores locks in the Panama Canal (Stan Shebs, Wikiemdia Commons)