EarthTalk…Questions & Answers About Our Environment: June 2022

Dear EarthTalk: Since when did cargo ships start using wind power (again)? Does this save us from a lot of carbon emissions?               ~ Bill H. Elizabeth, NJ

To many, sailboats invoke either the 18th century “Age of Sail” or preppy regattas. But some environmentalists and engineers are looking past these connotations and rewiring the art of sailing to suit modern technology.

In fact, the 21st century Age of Sail is already in its infancy, due to concerns about fossil fuel shortages that are used in exorbitant amounts to power enormous cargo ships.

This rewiring of sailing matters because of the immense emissions that cargo ships produce. Because they consume fossil fuels, much of our supply chain is riddled with emissions problems. In fact, marine emissions contribute to ocean acidification and greenhouse gas buildups in the atmosphere, and even an alarming feedback loop between the two. This may influence, among other things, coral reef die-offs. Cargo ships that use sails could partially or even completely eliminate the environmental impacts of diesel usage.

Very practical examples abound. Wine companies like Grain de Sail are not just paying lip service to sustainability or otherwise “greenwashing” their products. They are making sure their products truly reject fossil fuel usage by using canvas sails on a boat similar to 19th century schooners. Its ship uses 100 percent wind energy to propel itself across the ocean.

A few pioneering companies — like Wallenius with its OceanBird concept — are harnessing the power of the wind to reduce the carbon footprints of their cargo shipping operations.

OceanBird, manufactured by Wallenius, is another innovation. OceanBird is a cargo ship that can reach speeds similar to normal cargo ships using high tech modifications of sails that are closer to helicopters or airplane wings than canvas sails. They use changing air currents and automated shifts in the positioning of the “wings” to maximize speed of transport. While this may sound like science fiction, OceanBird’s experimental prototype will soon be on the market.

Grassroots efforts to support wind-powered cargo ships are still in their infancy, but you can “vote with your wallet” to support companies like Grain de Sail that use cargo sailboats to propel their goods across the water, if you can afford luxuries like their wines.

If not, you can do your part to avoid the shipping industry by shopping at your local thrift store or farmer’s market for local or secondhand goods.

Wind-propelled technologies are not only more picturesque than diesel-based cargo ships belching out emissions, dirtying the air and creating noise pollution. They have an opportunity to revolutionize the shipping industry and break our addiction to fossil fuels. To paraphrase Jimmy Dean, “[We] can’t change the direction of the wind, but [we] can adjust [our] sails to always reach [our] destination.” And when the end destination is a world free from fossil fuels, the journey is worth it.

CONTACTS: Grain de Sail,;
The Oceanbird Concept,

Dear EarthTalk: What are the most recent projections about sea level rise around the world as a result of climate change? And is there any hope of turning back the tide if we rein in emissions as planned under the current iteration of the Paris agreement?           ~ M. Frey, Milford, CT

As temperatures rise around the world, frozen glaciers and sea ice in the poles are melting at unprecedented rates, inundating the world’s oceans with more water. The result has been some sea level rise but watch out as more is still to come. In fact, the global mean sea level, defined as the average height of the entire ocean surface, has risen eight to nine inches since 1880. Most of that rise took place in the 150 years. At current rates of emissions, the global mean sea level could rise another 12 inches by 2050.

This amount of sea level rise could be catastrophic in low-lying coastal areas around the world. Bangladesh, and island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati are already facing the brunt of rising sea levels as flooding engulfs villages with little government funding to recover from repeated catastrophes.

The question is whether it’s too late to do anything about potentially runaway sea level rise. Credit: Roddy Scheer

Here in the U.S., Florida will likely be hardest hit by sea level rise, but the Gulf Coast and New York/New Jersey— where coastline industrial waste sites could be submerged and expose millions of people to decades worth of stored pollution—also face potentially catastrophic flooding. The Gowanus Canal Superfund site in Brooklyn, New York has already released some of its polluted contents in the latest series of storms. Hawaii and far-flung U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam are also at risk.

All U.S. coastal areas will undoubtedly experience some loss of coastal land. Just how much property loss takes place is partly a function of how well prepared any given region is for what’s inevitably coming.

World leaders have only recently resolved to face down sea level rise and climate-change-related threats through concerted action. In particular, the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, nixed by Donald Trump and then revived by Joe Biden, held international governments accountable to lower emissions, collectively limiting global warming processes to 1.5 Celsius. However, the “locked in” sea level rises, which will occur regardless of whether or not temperatures rise above 1.5 Celsius, are estimated to be a quarter to a half meter of sea level rise. Yet, action is still necessary to avoid greater sea level rise.

We can all do our part by cutting back on our own emissions, especially by flying and driving less. Indeed, our dependence on fossil fuels has gained new poignancy recently with defiant Russia using its clout to threaten the rest of Europe with cutting off gas pipelines. Another to help is to take an active role in countering misinformation and pushing for scientifically driven solutions. Consider signing up for text banking at Greenpeace or spreading the word by distributing the documentary Paris to Pittsburgh, which highlights the importance of the accord, to educate your friends and neighbors.

The Paris Agreement and its promises are more vital than ever. While individual citizen actions may appear small in the face of such insurmountable odds, don’t forget that it’s committed and engaged fighters against climate change who motivate world leaders to act in the first place.

Paris Agreement,;
Greenpeace Text Banking, join-the-greenpeace-volunteer-textbankers-team/; Paris to Pittsburgh,

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