If shipping were a country, it would be the sixth biggest in terms of emissions. Maritime transport accounts for 2.5% of global greenhouse gases (GHG), but without further action, shipping emissions are expected to grow by 50-250% until 2050. One container ex China to Europe accounts for approximately 1.913 kg of carbon dioxide. Ninety thousand cargo ships globally, for instance, mega-ships with more than 20,000 TEUs per vessel make apparent how massive the problem is. The shipping industry is responding to the increasing pollution with the 2020 Sulphur Cap or slow steaming. Buzzwords that are often discussed but represent only two examples of what needs to be done to reduce pollution caused by shipping. Read this article to understand how urgent the problem is and learn about what needs to be done to reduce global greenhouse gases.

Shipping pollution is expected to increase by up to 250% until 2050

How much do ships pollute?

Maritime transport emits around 940 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Fifteen of the biggest mega-ships alone account for as much pollution as all 760 million cars worldwide do. Shipping mainly produces sulphur dioxides (SOx), nitrogen dioxides (NOx), particular matter (PM) and carbon dioxide (CO2), but containerships are also responsible for ballast water, biocides, waste and oil spills and account for 26% of emissions from international shipping. International shipping accounts for 87% of CO2 emissions in shipping followed by domestic shipping (8%) and fishing (5%). In terms of flag states, Panama (15%), China (11%) and Liberia (9%) were the largest emitters, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Difference between international shipping, domestic shipping and fishing regarding their contribution to pollution in shipping

How can the industry reduce emissions?

 There is significant untapped potential to reduce shipping emissions cost-effectively, mainly technical and operational measures such as empty container repositioning.

Currently, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) approaches to address GHG emissions from international shipping. To ensure that shipping is cleaner and greener, the IMO is engaging in regulatory initiatives. One prominent example for their work is the 2020 Sulphur Cap to ensure ships transition to using fuel with a Sulphur content of not more than 0.5% compared to 3.5% as of now. In general, we identified six fields where shipping emissions could and should be decreased:

 Operational measures

Slow steaming and route optimization would reduce fuel consumption considerably. A 12% reduction in at-sea average speed leads to an average decrease of 27% in daily fuel consumption and thus fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Against many concerns, cutting ship speeds by 30% reduces the GDP of exporting countries by only less than 0.1%, according to a Delft study. Voyage optimization, another operational measure, is a technology to predict ship performance in various sea states to minimize fuel consumption. Weather-based route optimization, as an example, already accounts for fuel savings of 3%.

Incremental measures

Incremental measures are mostly short-term but would reduce emissions per vessel by as much as 5%. Examples include hull design, propeller optimization and waste heat recovery. Potential upgrades for ships also include the fitting of ship bows with bulbous extensions below the water line to reduce drag or painting hulls with low-friction coatings.

Renewable energy

Examples for renewable energy in shipping could be the use of wind-assist, or wind power, for propulsion. It is a surprisingly old idea for the next generation of ships, but first trialing has been done, as you can read in Tristan Smiths article if you want to learn more about early attempts.

Energy storage through batteries

Progress in energy storage would allow the industry to decarbonize and pave the way for all-electric ships. A current example includes the “Ampere” the first all-electric ferry in Norway that cuts shipping emissions by 95% and costs by 80%. Norway goes even one step further and plans the first autonomous electric container ship that could replace a total of 40,000 truck journeys a year.

The Full switch to carbon fuels

The most-significant reductions come with a fuel switch to low Sulphur content. More than 90,000 ships account for the burning of nearly 2bn barrels of the heaviest fuel oil, made from the dirtiest dregs of barrel. By 2020, vessels must transition to use fuel with a Sulphur content of not more than 0.5%, compared to the current limit of 3.5% – known as the 2020 Sulphur Cap. It is as easy as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) says: “Simply put, limiting sulphur oxides [SOx] emissions from ships reduces air pollution and results in a cleaner environment.”

Empty container moves

Did you know that every third container is being moved empty? Equipment owners reposition their empty containers mainly due to trade imbalances and operational inefficiencies. Hence, a solution that helps avoid empty container moves could save up to 30% of pollution caused by cargo ships.

Avoid empty container moves 

The hottest debate of this measures is undoubtedly the choice of fuel burned on the ships themselves. The industry is on a pivotal point with regards to reducing emissions with the climate change on the agenda. How bad is pollution in shipping? We’d say pretty bad! Ship pollution causes about 14 million cases of childhood asthma and 400,000 premature deaths per year.

At Container xChange, we think there is not only one solution and believe that every small contribution towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly shipping industry is a good one. Our own mission is to avoid empty container moves and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by a lot. Our online platform does not change trade imbalances, but we can reduce operational inefficiencies across company borders. More than 300 container owners and users save money on xChange and contribute to a better future of shipping. Please reach out to us if you have idle containers that need to be repositioned and help us reduce the pollution in our industry.