Environmental Progress in the Container Shipping Industry

When you think about the hundreds of giant ships crossing oceans and seas every single day, or read about oil spills that massively impact an area for years, the concept of “being environmentally friendly” does not seem closely related to the shipping industry. Shipping is, actually, statistically “the least environmentally damaging mode of transport, when its productive value is taken into consideration” according to the International Maritime Organization, which makes sense: airplanes need plenty of fuel to travel at high speeds, and when more trucks are added to the roads, the increase in traffic causes idling and unnecessary emissions.

However, just because the most common form of transport for the world’s trade is the best option doesn’t mean there isn’t some room for improvement when it comes to the environmental impact of shipping. Here are some of the areas where the shipping industry has made huge strides already, efforts currently being implemented by industry players, and matters that still need to be addressed.

Success: The Adoption of LNG

MARPOL, the major maritime environmental convention that entered into force back in 1983, set precedents for reducing pollution in the shipping industry and has been updated accordingly over the past few decades. Since January 2011, the revised Annex VI has been in force, mandating that sulphur oxide emissions from all ships be reduced to 0.50% of the global total by 2020.

To meet this lofty goal, shipping lines have been investing in bringing liquid natural gas, or LNG, to container ships. In 2016, CMA CGM entered into an agreement with energy group ENGIE to study the viability of LNG in the industry; it was the next step in CMA CGM’s environmental research program launched in 2011 to build dual fuel large capacity ships. And earlier this month, both Containerships and MOL received funding and approval, respectively, for the construction of LNG-fuelled vessels.

CMA CGM has long been working on improving the environmental impact of the shipping industry.

CMA CGM has long been working on improving the environmental impact of the shipping industry.

Success: Commitments by Shipping Lines

According to the IMO, the international nature of shipping means the task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions does not lie with any particular country, and therefore requires cooperation from members of the shipping community themselves. Maersk Line have taken a strong position on this cause, partnering with EQUATE Petrochemical Company to reduce CO2 emissions; their previous collaborations already led to a 35% reduction between 2013-2016, and they hope to reduce emissions by another 15% by 2020.

Maersk has also partnered with the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to measure the effects of upgrades on twelve Maersk container ships. The study will track vessel emissions and performance over three years in order to suggest improvements in design and functionality to reduce CO2 emissions. It follows a previous “radical retrofit” program that Maersk worked on with the ports and that led to the participating vessels undergoing several upgrades to reduce fuel consumption and increase capacity.

Success: Efforts by Ports

In addition to its work with Maersk, the Port of Los Angeles has also been working hard to make the port itself more environmentally friendly, and was recently awarded two grants to invest in zero and near-zero emission equipment at its terminals.

Ports Environmental Progress in the Shipping Industry

On the other side of the world, the Aqaba Container Terminal in Jordan became the first company in the country to receive the ISO 14001:2015 certification for environmental management. The terminal’s sizable growth in throughput from 2015 shows that striving for environmental improvements does not need to come at the cost of less business development; rather, the two go hand in hand.

Needs Improvement: Ship Recycling

Ship scrapping is a notoriously brutal industry, with plenty of documentation of dangerous conditions for workers, low wages for long shifts, and poor disposal of hazardous materials. While we tend to associate bad ship scrapping practices with countries like Bangladesh and India, these low standards are being supported by some of the biggest names in shipping. Perhaps most worryingly it was Germany, a country generally known for innovation and widespread adoption when it comes to saving the environment, that was recently named the most irresponsible ship-disposing country.

Eight German shipping companies sent a combined total of 98 ships to south Asia in 2016, a whopping 98% of the 100 German ships that were sold for scrap that year. Greece also sent 104 ships to be dismantled on beaches rather than in shipyards.

The IMO has projects dedicated to helping developing countries without the necessary resources to comply with its environmental regulations. However, if world leaders in the shipping industry can’t even commit to safe ship recycling practices, it sets a poor example for other nations to follow.

Major ship owners are still scrapping their ships on beaches.

Major ship owners are still scrapping their ships on beaches.

Other Challenges

While everyone should be concerned about the environment, it’s difficult for shipping lines to commit to investing in environmental improvements if it comes at the cost of other business operations. Freight rates are finally increasing after a tumultuous time in the container shipping industry where many of the leading shippers recorded losses for 2016. Customers are demanding better service and reliability, and liners need to commit to being better in these business areas; as a result, environmental protection is probably not at the top of many shipping lines’ priority lists.

That’s where some of the larger customers have the opportunity to support better environmental practices with their business. Hamburg Süd partnered with one of its major customers, Electrolux, to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions at Chile’s Port of Iquique. Previously, the Electrolux Sustainability initiative succeeded at reducing carbon emissions by its carriers, and now it wants to focus on ports. Both companies, facilitated by the Clean Cargo Working Group, “are accepting additional expense and higher costs to make the value-added chain more sustainable”.

The maritime industry has taken major steps to reduce its environmental impact, but it’s important to remember there is still a lot of work to be done. As consumers, we need to fight for environmental improvements in shipping and support those companies that commit to it. After all, it’s in all of our best interests to protect the earth for the future.