The global importance of reducing carbon emissions from port operations



Professor David Gibbs, Department of Geography at the University of Hull; & Dr. Patrick Rigot-Muller and Professor Chandra Lalwani, Hull University Business School, Hull, UK



Although producing far less emissions per tonne transported than aviation and road freight, the shipping industry still creates around a billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year, a similar output to that of Germany, and more than the UK.

With this in mind, a wide ranging Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and industry-funded project, entitled Low Carbon Shipping – A Systems Approach, is aiming to find ways of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

Thanks to the increase in world trade, movement is set to increase and with it a rise in the industry’s carbon emissions. In 2007, international shipping accounted for 870 million tonnes of carbon or 2.7% of global emissions, whereas international aviation accounted for 1.9% (IMO report, 2009). It is clear that measures need to be put into place to ensure that shipping pollution does not continue on an upward trajectory. Ownership of the world’s key ports is limited to a small number of companies and over 50% of global container throughput is controlled by around seven major companies. Therefore, port companies could act as effective and influential drivers of change in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the industry’s hugely complex supply chains.

The research

Our research concentrates on UK-centric freight flows, that is, freight that originates in, or is destined for, the UK. As a starting point, we have been mapping shipping activity within and around the UK (in its ports and trading routes) and endeavouring to calculate the share of emissions this shipping activity represents in the context of global international maritime emissions.

It is easy to ascertain the total volume of UK maritime freight at UK ports, and relate this to a global share, but it is more difficult to ascertain the UK’s share of global maritime traffic (and carbon emissions). Moreover, this may not be particularly accurate as it doesn’t take into consideration the different types of vessels involved and their associated carbon emissions. Our ongoing analysis of UK shipping activity, using various publicly available data, aims to address this issue.

The findings do reveal that carbon emissions from ports  and port-related activity are small compared with emissions from ships and the haulage companies that serve ports. Our project looks at the interface between new ship technologies and the ports, maps out the environmental actions taking place in 72 UK port locations and compares them with initiatives at overseas ports in order to understand which are likely to be most appropriate for adoption in the UK.

According to the study’s preliminary results, in 2008 the added emissions from five major UK ports groups represented only a small fraction of those generated by the ships calling at these same ports: 174,000 tonnes from ports operations and approximately 10 million tonnes from international shipping.

It is clear that given the right incentives and initiatives ports could have a major role bringing about major changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. Ports are already doing many things that are good, such as improving the energy efficiency of their handling operations and developing renewable energy sources, but there is scope to reduce carbon emissions in the maritime industry by between 25% and 75%, using a range of technical and operational measures.

Organising the tools

A number of tools exist to enable port operators to attempt to redress the balance and it is our role to assess the technologies to understand which will be most applicable to the UK ports system. For example, one tool is that of Virtual Arrival, which aims to significantly reduce the amount of fuel consumption on a journey by making sure that the ship only arrives when the port is ready for it. By managing the arrivals through communication en route, ships are able to decrease their speed approaching port based on their date of arrival, planning for any known delays dockside. The positive effects of this are that waiting times are cut, health and safety issues around congestion in ports are addressed and, most importantly for our study, emissions are decreased. In fact, trials undertaken by the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) and Intertanko have shown that it is possible to reduce a vessel’s fuel consumption and consequent CO2 emissions by up to 22%.

Slow steaming will assist shipping companies to save fuel, which in turn can lead to increased competitiveness in the market – BP, for example, is leading tests in this area. Another possibility, already in operation in six European ports, is the use of ‘green passports’ that offer reduced port fees for vessels meeting specified environmental requirements for emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants – a specific example of ports enacting a major positive change for the environment.


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