In the past, shipping containers have been notoriously bad for the environment. Generally speaking, the environmental effects of shipping include air pollution, water pollution, acoustic, and oil pollution. According to Forbes, shipping contributes up to 3% of global emissions and 10% of transportation emissions – nearly the same as aviation. It is also an important element of the global economy, conveying over 80% of physical goods trade.
Marine freight is the least polluting mode of transport, but demand is growing, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that "emissions will rise by 50 percent to 250 percent by 2050 if nothing changes. Nevertheless, the Paris Climate Agreement excludes maritime transportation. Despite the fact that the public and governments are beginning to demand change, there is virtually no public information available regarding what the world's top shipping firms are doing in terms of the environment. The maritime sector needs reform and innovation, and this transformation must occur immediately.
In 2020, this kind of needed innovation was starting to be seen in Norway, where the world’s first autonomous electric cargo ship is set to commence operations. The Yara Birkeland, which can transport up to 60 containers, is powered by a massive 7MWh battery that will be charged by cleaner hydroelectric power.
In November 2021, Svein Tore Holsether, the CEO of Yara (the manufacturing company), said “We are proud to be able to showcase the world's first fully electric and self-propelled container ship. It will cut 1,000 tonnes of CO2 and replace 40,000 trips by diesel-powered trucks a year.”
He continued, “This is an excellent example of green transition in practice, and we hope this ship will be the start of a new type of emission-free container ships. There are a lot of places in the world with congested roads that will benefit from a high-tech solution like this.”
Although the Yara Birkeland shipping container is a very small piece in a much bigger puzzle, it provides an exciting alternative to conventional vessels and an opportunity for others to follow suit.
Elsewhere, three companies, Maersk, Norden, and Japan's NYK, are working on technologies that have the potential to radically change the sector. NYK wants to build zero-emission ships by 2050, while Danish organisations are focusing on second-generation biofuels made from waste, such as frying oil. Other businesses are often interested in technology and fuels that provide just minor gains.
It is difficult to overlook the recent commodities boom when discussing the possibilities for the shipping sector to go green. Indeed, while the data on the number of TEU’s transported across the global varies, they all agree that this figure is on the up. The demand that our population puts on this industry means this number is only going to increase.
Although the shipping sector must strive for better green energy programmes and solutions, the part consumers have played in making the situation as severe as it is cannot be overlooked. We drive the demand; the ships facilitate it. To imply that shipping can go fully green is a stretch, but with a shift in customer behaviour and a greater focus on technologies like the Yara Birkeland ship, the sector can significantly lower its emissions.