Climate change: Do volunteers dream of electric lifeboats?

It is evident that climate change impacts are happening right now across the world and records are being broken every year. We’re increasingly experiencing hotter drier summers and drought, warmer wetter winters and flooding, ocean acidification, coastal erosion, and more extreme weather events. And sea levels are predicted to rise.

Cullercoats RNLI B class lifeboat Hylton Burdon on exercise off Cullercoats Bay

Photo: Adrian Don

There are two sides to the issue of climate change. One is adaptation to the impacts happening right now and soon, which are due to historical carbon emissions. The second is mitigation, or trying to lessen the impact of future climate change, by eliminating or reducing our current carbon emissions. 

Climate change adaptation

Climate change presents real challenges to the RNLI’s continued ability to safely save lives at sea. It also creates risks for the communities that we serve and where our people live, and to the suppliers and partners upon whom we rely.  

The RNLI is working with partners, such as the Met Office, to understand the science and projections around three initial areas: flood, heatwaves and sea state change. 

On all three of these topics, we’re asking two questions:

  1. What impact will this have on the type and location of lifesaving service we’ll need to perform?
  2. What impact will this have on our ability to deliver our lifesaving service? 

Example answers to question 1 could be that warmer seas might mean different species of jellyfish causing a hazard for swimmers. Or that more common and severe flooding might have an impact on station access or power supplies.

Example answers to question 2 could be that coastal erosion means lifeboat stations need to be repositioned in some areas. Or that kit and technical clothing will have to be designed to withstand extremes of temperature.

St Davids crew members in full RNLI  kit

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Through a better understanding of these potential impacts, we can more accurately assess the likely risks and opportunities they will present. Then, in future, information can be fed into our medium- and long-term planning. 

Climate change mitigation

We at the RNLI also have a responsibility to reduce our own impact on climate change, eliminating or reducing the carbon emissions we create. 

We can do this through the generation and use of renewable energy, and by improving our energy and fuel efficiency. 

What does this mean in real terms? RNLI Carbon and Energy Manager Victoria Limbrick has a few examples: ‘We can use our vessels with fuel efficiency in mind, without compromising on operational necessity, by reducing speeds, and by avoiding rapid acceleration and prolonged idling. We are also challenging our suppliers and designers to find innovations, such as reducing waste in our manufacturing supply chains.’ 

We have set ambitions to be Zero carbon for road transport by 2040 and to be Zero carbon for electricity, gas and fuel by 2050

Elite sailor, long-time RNLI supporter and environmental activist Dee Caffari is Chair of the RNLI’s Sustainability Special Interest Group. She says: ‘We currently use a diesel-guzzling fleet of boats and, to date, the alternative technologies are not well enough developed to meet our operational requirements. This is not only a huge challenge, but also an opportunity for excitement.’

Sailor and RNLI supporter Dee Caffari

Photo: James Blake

Dee Caffari, sailor, environmental activist and RNLI supporter

Terry Webb, Helm at Southend-on-Sea, can see potential: ‘All of our lifeboats and hovercraft burn fossil fuels. If you take the inshore fleet and look at the data, you see that most services are of short duration and distance. So the application of battery or hybrid technologies could be possible.’

We’re not there yet, but our engineers and partners have always loved a challenge. Electric propulsion is a rapidly evolving technology, but it is some way from being able to deliver the speed, reliability and flexibility needed by an emergency rescue service. Hydrogen and other alternative fuels are another avenue to explore. Later this year, we will hold an alternative propulsion review, and we are collaborating with experts in that field to seek solutions for our future lifeboat fleet.

In the meantime, lifeboat crews are being encouraged to go a bit slower when life is not in immediate danger. A small reduction in speed can lead to a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Tanya Ferry, Crew Member at Gravesend RNLI and Head of Environment at the Port of London Authority
Tanya Ferry, Crew Member at Gravesend RNLI and Head of Environment at the Port of London Authority

Tanya Ferry is Head of Environment at the Port of London Authority, and a volunteer lifeboat crew member at Gravesend. She says: ‘The RNLI saves lives in an environment that is experiencing the consequences of previous actions. Climate change response has been described as trying to turn a very large ship. The actions we take today (at the helm) will be felt in some decades’ time (at the stern). And we will feel the effects of previous decades for years to come.’

Change is needed, and the RNLI is committed to playing our part in that change and striving for a safer, healthier and happier future for all.