Marine transport: shipshape for a green future?

With international shipping carrying more than 90 per cent of global trade, maritime industries are coming under increasing pressure to make their operations more eco-friendly. Vision examines some pioneering logistical initiatives that are making the global freight sector more efficient and sustainable

Marine transport is crucial to world trade, with the vast majority of goods carried between countries on container ships. And, alongside other modes of travel such as road and air, shipping is coming under scrutiny for its impact on the environment.

The battle against climate change means all sectors of business are under pressure – both through regulations and from clients and customers – to cut carbon dioxide emissions and make their operations more environmentally friendly.

Emissions targets

The vast, tangled web of ports, shipping companies, trucking lines, rail operators and warehouse owners that make up the international freight sector is difficult to regulate due to its very nature as a global entity. However, attempts are being made to set binding targets for emissions reductions, particularly in Europe, with pollution around ports under the spotlight.

And as business takes the lead in fighting climate change, shipping is responding, with cleaner ships and new approaches to the way goods are moved around. “Ports are making huge strides to become more sustainable,” says Peter Boyd, COO of the Carbon War Room, an international thinktank working with business – including the shipping sector – to bring about carbon reductions alongside increased profits. “Ports are an essential element in the worldwide logistics chain, vital to the economies of many states and coastal regions. Ports have a role to play in improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the areas in which they operate.”

Countries around the world are engaging in this process in increasingly innovative ways. The Dubai Logistics Corridor, which opened in late 2010, has pioneered a new, greener kind of port, linking sea, land and air, to make the movement of freight more efficient and cut carbon emissions.

Marine terminals

The London Gateway in the UK, which opens at the end of next year, takes the concept further, maximising the use of rail and eliminating unnecessary freight movements by ensuring goods are warehoused as close to their point of sale as possible. The Gateway is being operated by Dubai-based DP World, one of the world’s biggest marine terminal operators, which runs more than 60 terminals across six continents. Simon Moore, CEO of the London Gateway, says the port will bring London back to its historical roots as the biggest in the world. “This was the case up until 100 years ago,” he says. “London had the right marine access, the right warehousing set-up along the River Thames and access to the biggest consumer market in the UK: London and the Southeast.” However, as ships got larger, the Thames became a barrier and commerce moved to deeper waters.

The London Gateway aims to once again make the city a pivotal centre of marine commerce. “We all know the importance ports still play,” says Moore. “Many of the world’s major cities are located on the sea, be it Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Hamburg, Rotterdam or Sydney. London lost that position but it did retain a lot of the service industries – bankers, traders, insurance firms – that had built up around the UK’s main port hub location.”

Richard Meade, Editor of shipping industry bible Lloyd’s List, is optimistic about the role the sector can play in the battle against climate change, and says ports such as Dubai and London are making an important contribution. He explains the concept of port-centric logistics, where carbon emissions are minimised through efficient freight handling. “There’s an argument that shipping is already the greenest form of transport when you compare it with trucks, rail and air,” he says. “But there is an international impetus towards reducing carbon output, and as world trade grows so the amount of shipping is going to grow. In the UK, a lot of the warehousing and distribution centres are in the Midlands and Northeast, so there is a situation where goods could enter the country at the port of Southampton, the containers put on trucks and driven up to Birmingham, where they are unpacked, then returned to Southampton by road for sale in a supermarket. One of the London Gateway’s selling points is that there are distribution centres at the port itself, eliminating those unnecessary road miles and cutting pollution in the process.”

Improved productivity

Maersk has been a true leader in the environmental field among shipping companies, committed to building ever more fuel-efficient ships. John Kornerup Bang, Maersk’s Lead Group Adviser, Climate Change & Environment, highlights the vital role ports have to play in greening marine transport. He says, for example, that the UAE’s “commitment to safeguarding the environment is an important factor in its success in continuously boosting economic activity”.

Maersk is keen to take advantage of the services that developments such as the London Gateway can offer. “It makes sense for terminal operators and shipping lines to work together to increase terminal productivity, handle larger vessels and tighten schedules,” says Kornerup Bang. “Timely communication from both sides helps reduce disruptions and cut costs, waste and carbon emissions on both sides.”

Another body leading on sustainable development is the International Maritime Organisation. “Shipping is an essential component of any programme for sustainable development,” Secretary General Koji Sekimizu says. “And governments, the shipping and maritime industries and the world community should work together to take necessary actions to ensure shipping can continue to be environment-friendly.”

Dubai was an important cog in the machinery of international trade long before the discovery of oil. It has shown how ports can play their part in reducing the climate change impact of the marine freight sector. Now it is up to new developments such as the London Gateway to take these steps to the next level.