More efficiency, less emissions?

Shipping has been told it will have to reduce its CO2 emissions by at least 50% by 2050 Photo: IMO/flickr/CC BY 2.0 Shipping has been told it will have to reduce its CO2 emissions by at least 50% by 2050 Photo: IMO/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Shipping will have to reduce its CO2 emissions by at least 50% by 2050. The IMO agreement agreed in April of this year has been considered by many policy makers and many stakeholders, including the ports, as a real milestone, writes Isabelle Ryckbost, secretary general, ESPO.

The next, and probably more challenging step, is to define how this target will be reached. Which measures have to be taken? How do we pave the road to Paris for shipping?

When following the discussions over the past months, it seems that very quickly the attention goes to the ports: More efficient ports and port operations will decrease the CO2 emissions of ships entering the ports.

The challenge at hand

No one doubts that efficiency can contribute to decarbonisation. More efficiency means moving more cargo with less energy, thus also less emissions.  Every time a ship waits before entering a port, it emits needlessly.

Reducing the waiting times and reducing congestion will deliver some emissions reductions. But we cannot ignore that some of Europe’s biggest and busiest ports have an important challenge in that respect.

They are facing year on year new volume records carried by the world’s biggest ships and seeing the limit of their capacity in the hinterland. These same ports are actively investing in digital applications, booking systems, smart port programmes, smart port infrastructure, block chain technology and so on, with promising results.

What is the real scale of the problem? We do not know. We have some data on how much CO2 is emitted when ships are at berth, but unfortunately, we do not know how much of the emissions can be earmarked to the waiting times before entering a port.

And anyway, even if alleviating port congestion as a way to reduce the emissions is a valuable pathway, we must acknowledge that many European ports do not have congestion issues at all. So, what to do there? There are no waiting times, at least not because of lack of efficiency.

Are there other reasons in the interest of a shipping line to wait before entering the port, or to even stay outside the port aside from reducing emissions?

Pivotal role

The impact of increased efficiency in reducing pollution and costs is certainly an interesting pathway. But this way does not have to be paved by the ports only. All stakeholders have to make the assessment; port service operators, terminal operators, shipowners, hinterland transport operators, shipping lines and ports.

Ports have a pivotal role in the supply chain; But they do not control it. They can encourage, but they cannot regulate the efficiency of other stakeholders.

As managers of infrastructure, ports can invest in taking away bottlenecks and optimising the connectivity between the maritime leg and the hinterland, ensure the optimal use of the existing infrastructure and create smoother links.

But then again, will enhancing efficiency deliver the emissions reductions for the shipping sector required under the IMO agreement?

Even if it is an important complementary measure, we believe it cannot be in place of the energy transition decisions to be made by and for the shipping sector: Transition to clean fuels and the uptake of new technologies must be a first priority.

But of course, ports will help their customers in facilitating the transition. It won’t be easy; the diversity of new technologies for the shipping sector might imply very diverse port investments to accommodate. But which investments should be made to avoid the chicken-egg situation?

There are no facilities, so no uptake”.There are facilities, but no one is using them”. A difficult but important debate that is not unique for this sector in a world that prepares for a carbon free economy.


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