WHEN the Sustainable Sea Transport Forum was convened at the University of the South Pacific last year, the unique advantages of sustainable sea transport were on display for all to see.
But so many challenges for implementing sustainable forms of sea transport were identified as well.
Lack of funds from donors, misconceptions about sustainable sailing and a lack of policy for it were barriers to advancing the cause.
But the concept is one that cannot be denied.
Research presented by SOPAC at the 30th Conference for International Association for Energy Economics in 2007 stated that Pacific Island countries were the most dependent on fossil fuels in the world, with PICs importing 95 per cent of their needs.
New Marine Pollution (MARPOL) regulations state that by 2020, all ships over 400 tonnes will be required to use high grade fuel as part of attempts to cut down the green house gas emissions.
Factor in the current price differential between high grade fuel in use in New Zealand and fuel in Fiji of around 60 per cent and shipping, could very well become unaffordable for many in the next decade.
For scattered islands like those in Fiji and the Pacific, this is not an option. In Fiji shipping provides a link from the two main islands ferrying valuable basic goods from the mainland and provides the islands a way to transport goods to market.
Sustainable sailing on a global scale is still a few years away though. Research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that "a significant shift from a primarily diesel only fleet to a fleet that uses alternative fuels and energy sources can not be expected until 2020...".
The reasons given for this are because most of the promising alternative techniques are not yet tested to an extent that they can compete with diesel engines.
But if noted, sustainable sailing experts Alison Newell and Peter Nuttall have their way, Fiji can lead the way in testing for vessels on alternative sources of propulsion.
"I think Fiji can lead this discussion, I would advocate very very strongly for that. In terms of conventional shipping SPC, Ausaid and ADB, all agree Fiji is the logical transshipment hub of the Pacific," Mr Nuttall.
"If we introduce new technology, Fiji is also the logical distribution hub for that tech and that idea. It's not just about the cargo and the boats.
"Fiji used to have a fantastic boat building industry, it's slowly coming back up again but you need to have the capacity to build really good boats."
He explained that the lack of trial vessels was one issue brought up at the Sustainable Sailing Talanoa at USP last year.
An issue he said stakeholders in the country including the USP were working to answer.
"We have sufficient research to go to trialling, we're just having an endless circular conversation among ourselves," Mr Nuttall said.
"The question is what are we going to practically trial?"
Mr Nuttall explained that any vessel trialled in Fiji waters needed to answer a number of questions before they were considered the full proof answers.
He said these questions covered a number of issues from affordability to load carrying capacity.
"They (trial vessels) need to be appropriate, we need to know what size of load they are going to carry, if they're going to be built, we need to know where they are going to be built.
"We need to know who's going to build them, we need to know what materials they are going to be built from.
"We need to know what skills we're going to need to build them, we need to know which is the best sort of design.
"Should it be a multi hull? Should it be a mono hull? There's advantages and disadvantages to each. A multi hull can go over the reef and it can go shallow draft and land on a beach.
"Should we build out of fibreglass, plywood? Should we be planking ships? Should we be building out of aluminium? Should we be building out of steel? There are pros and cons to each of them."
One vessel that Mr Nuttall believe holds promise is being constructed in Bangladesh by a Japan-based non-profit organisation called Greenheart.
Nuttall and Newell say the Greenheart vessel offers strong potential for extremely cost effective 220 ton, 100 per cent renewable energy-powered freighters.
They believe the vessel could operate on inter-island and inter-regional trade routes conservatively displacing two tonnes of fuel a day.
However, despite the vessels demonstrated potential for generating fuel savings, securing funding for research and development has so far seen little success. Something that Mr Nuttall says needs to be addressed.
He explained that the second hand ships being brought into the country were symptomatic of a larger problem.
"The issues to do with shipping are that shipping is uneconomical, by and large.
"Governments have to get ships to sail uneconomic routes like the ones to Lau and Rotuma and therefore they have to subsidise shipping.
"Now the price of shipping is going up so all that anyone can afford is old ships and all that any one can replace these ships with is other old ships.
"And the new generation of shipping that is coming online which does include a lot of amazing renewable energy components is not going to be affordable.
"So ships that our partners are building in the UK today and Holland tomorrow won't be affordable here unless we can get assistance.
"So we need to change the donor space."
He said donors needed to realise that islands like Fiji and her neighbours would not be able to get over the technology hump alone.
"So ADB, UNDP, UNESCAP and FAO came to the party in the last oil crisis.
"It took five years for them to come to the party but once they did, real solutions started to emerge and that's the purpose of our next talanoa which we will hold early next year at USP.
"It will be a much bigger conference where we will bring those guys in and say come on look at the research it says we need your help."
* Next week: Policy issues and the