The Environmental Cost Of The Maritime Sector: Key Facts

Insights on The Environmental Cost Of The Maritime Sector

The maritime sector is a critical component of global trade and transportation, shipping approximately 80% of global trade every year. However, the convenience of maritime shipping also comes at a cost to the environment. As the industry is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, the maritime sector is responsible for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions emitted every year – experts believe this could grow to 17% by 2050 if left unregulated. The ocean-going vessels which propel the maritime industry are also responsible for more than 18% of air pollutants, on top of the water, noise and oil pollution.

As countries across the world continue to endure heat waves and droughts, extreme cold, flash floods, earthquakes and wildfires, the impacts of climate change are only set to worsen. The maritime industry, being a significant contributor to global trade and transportation, has a critical role to play in addressing these environmental concerns.

In order to meet the challenge of mitigating the negative impact of its operations on the environment, the industry must take proactive steps to improve its efficiency, reduce its emissions and ultimately promote environmental sustainability in its operations.

So what is the environmental cost of maritime operations? And with a spotlight now on the sector, can the industry rise to the challenge?

The Environmental Challenge of the Maritime Sector

The sheer scale of the maritime industry has led to a significant impact on the environment. Despite efforts to improve efficiency, the annual increase in shipping activities has far outpaced any gains in efficiency, resulting in a net increase in environmental impact.

Maritime shipping remains the largest contributor to global tonne-kilometres transported worldwide. The increasing amount of goods transported by the shipping sector annually overwhelm gains in efficiency, with the growth in tonne-kilometres of sea shipment having averaged 4% yearly since the 1990s. Trade volumes transported via our oceans grew 4% in 2017 – the fastest rate since 2012 with an estimated 10.7 billion tonnes transported by sea. In regards to tonne-kilometres, global shipping activities amounted to over 58 trillion in 2017. This was an increase of 5% compared with the previous year.

With these statistics in mind, the current pathway is projecting that maritime freight transport will continue to grow with an annual growth rate of 3.6% which will lead to a near tripling of maritime trade volumes in the next 27 years. By 2050, it is estimated that the industry’s vessels will carry more than three-quarters of all goods.

The Environmental Cost Of The Maritime Sector: Global greenhouse gas emissions by sector
Shipping (1.7%): emissions from the burning of petrol or diesel on boats. This includes both passenger and freight maritime trips.
Source: Our World in Data

The lesser of two evils?

The movement of cargo via vessels and ships is the most energy-efficient method, as it requires less fuel and emits fewer greenhouse gases than other forms of transportation. However, there are now over 90,000 commercial ships at sea across the globe operating at any one time, with just over 5,000 of those large container ships. These ships are responsible for transporting a significant portion of the world’s goods. However, the sheer volume of shipping activities, coupled with the size of these container ships, has led to serious environmental concerns.

The challenge of course is mitigating the environmental concerns without compromising on operations and harming the global economy. Much more needs to be done to ensure that the environmental impact of the maritime industry is minimised – however, we still need to meet the growing demand for goods around the world.

The Impact of the Shipping Industry

The maritime sector is responsible for around 2 – 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. These emissions contribute to climate change, which has far-reaching environmental and economic consequences. Maritime vessels also burn large amounts of fossil fuels, which release pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter into the air. These pollutants contribute to air pollution, which can harm human health as well as our precious ecosystems.

Oil spills and water pollution

The impact of accidents and spills from ocean-going vessels cannot be overstated. When such incidents occur, they can cause catastrophic damage to our marine environments, with far-reaching consequences that can last for years or even decades. Not only can oil spills and other forms of pollution harm marine wildlife and habitats, but they can also devastate local economies that rely on fishing and tourism.

Impact on aquatic life

Furthermore, the discharge of ballast water by vessels can introduce invasive species into new environments, which can have a significant impact on local ecosystems. These invasive species can outcompete native species for resources, alter food webs and even cause the extinction of local species. This disruption can have ripple effects throughout the ecosystem, potentially leading to the collapse of entire food webs.

Shipping activities can also produce high levels of underwater noise. Studies have shown that underwater noise pollution from commercial vessels can have negative consequences on marine life – more specifically marine mammals. This issue was first raised by the International Maritime Organization in 2004 when it was noted that continuous noise in the ocean primarily generated by shipping required a more coordinated response internationally.

The Goal

In 2008, The International Maritime Organization laid out a bold new strategy outlining how the maritime industry, specifically the shipping sector, is going to decarbonise and become more environmentally sustainable. The primary goals were to:

  • Cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by 2050
  • Work towards phasing out GHG emissions from shipping entirely
  • Cut carbon emissions from shipping by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050

The Solution

Despite efforts by The International Maritime Organization, the maritime industry is still facing a significant challenge when it comes to sustainability. With the growing concern for the environment, it has become increasingly important for the industry to reduce its impact on the planet. To achieve this, it is crucial that the industry takes drastic action and implements more sustainable practices in its day-to-day operations.

One of the options that the maritime industry can consider is improving energy efficiency by taking a proactive approach to routine maintenance. By regularly inspecting and maintaining equipment, ships can operate more efficiently, which in turn reduces fuel consumption and emissions.

Other options to consider include…

  • Shifting to alternative fuels such as biofuels and/or hydrogen.
  • Adopting more sustainable technologies that improve fuel efficiency, lessen noise pollution and emit fewer carbon emissions. For example, the use of wind-assisted propulsion, fuel cells, and electric power can help reduce the industry’s carbon footprint and improve energy efficiency.
  • Ditching plastic including single-use water bottles and implementing more sustainable marine water solutions.
  • Enacting incentives within the industry that encourage owners/operators to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices is another option. Such incentives can include tax breaks, subsidies, and awards for those who implement sustainable practices.
  • Working towards total decarbonisation across the industry by implementing a range of measures, including the use of alternative fuels, investing in sustainable technologies and adopting more sustainable practices. This will require a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including shipowners and operators to achieve this goal.

Although the maritime industry faces a significant challenge when it comes to sustainability, by taking drastic action and implementing sustainable practices, the sector could significantly reduce its impact on the environment and contribute to a more sustainable future that goes beyond the confines of its industry.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the convenience of ocean-going transportation comes with a price tag in terms of the environment. The industry relies heavily on fossil fuels, resulting in a significant contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions every year. To tackle these environmental issues, the maritime industry must strive to increase efficiency, minimise emissions, and promote sustainability.

Overall, it is crucial that we take steps to minimise the impact of ocean-going vessels on our oceans and waterways. This includes implementing regulations and best practices to prevent accidents and oil spills, as well as developing more effective methods for treating ballast water to prevent the introduction of invasive species, minimising noise pollution and of course, working towards total decarbonisation across the maritime industry.

When it comes to decarbonising the maritime industry, there does seem to be hope on the horizon. At the beginning of 2023, The European Union began making moves to regulate emissions from the shipping sector under its trading system. Under the proposed law, shipping companies will need to pay for the carbon they emit travelling to and from the EU and between EU ports by 2026.

One thing is for sure, in order to mitigate the negative impact of its operations on the planet, the maritime industry must take proactive steps to improve the efficiency of the sector as well as reduce emissions and ultimately promote environmental sustainability.

By adopting more environmentally sustainable methods, the gradual and consistent decarbonisation of the maritime industry could spur green growth in a number of other significant industries around the world. By increasing demand, making the proper infrastructural investments, fostering industry collaboration and engaging with governmental organisations, the maritime industry has the ability to encourage more investment in renewable projects and essentially launch the green revolution our planet needs.