USA - The voyage to net-zero: what role can ports play?

With increasing pressure for the shipping and logistics industries to implement low or net zero carbon operations, ports are emerging as key facilitators of the drive to sustainability. This article looks at some of the initiatives which key global ports are implementing in their move towards decarbonisation and the overall trends that are emerging.

The problem

It is estimated that transport contributes to 24% of global CO2 emissions and that shipping accounts for 10% of total transport emissions. Many key global ports operate in or close to highly populated urban centres, with ports in such locations coming under increasing pressure to improve their overall environmental performance.

Following the Greenhouse Gas Protocol international accounting tool, examples of the sources of emissions which ports can target, can be summarised as follows:

  1. Scope 1 emissions i.e. direct emissions from sources controlled by the port such as diesel-powered shore side infrastructure for moving containers, cranes and harbour craft.
  2. Scope 2 emissions i.e. indirect emissions resulting from a port’s energy use and purchase of energy. Examples include emissions from electricity consumption used to power port buildings and lighting, reefer container points, and electric cranes.
  3. Scope 3 emissions i.e. indirect emissions resulting from users of the ports. This could potentially be very large, including emissions from vessels, trucks and railcars that call at the port to deliver and load cargo, and warehouses which are owned and operated by third parties on port land.

Ports as a catalyst

Regulators have highlighted the catalysing role that ports can play in facilitating the transition to net zero maritime transport. For example, in May 2021, the European Commission announced its new approach to establishing a sustainable “blue economy”, which described the future of European ports as follows:

“…their future lies in developing their key role as energy hubs (for integrated electricity, hydrogen and other renewable and low-carbon fuels systems), for the circular economy (for collecting, transhipping and disposing of waste from ships and other port industries, and for decommissioning ships), for communication (for submarine cables), and for industry (as industrial clusters). A further aspect that helps achieve decarbonisation and zero pollution is the use of smart digital solutions and autonomous systems, as these optimise traffic flows and cargo handling in and around ports…”


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In an earlier communication in 2020, the European Commission also promoted the growth of short sea shipping and use of inland waterways as a means of greening freight transport, in line with the European Green Deal objective of reducing emissions from transport by 90% by 2050.

The IMO’s Initial Strategy for the reduction of emissions from shipping encouraged ports to contribute to the realisation of the Strategy’s goals by providing shore-side power from renewable sources, infrastructure for the supply of low and zero carbon fuels and to further optimise the logistics chain and its planning. This was followed in 2019 by a further call for member states to encourage “the consideration and adoption by ports within their jurisdiction, of regulatory, technical, operational, and economic actions to facilitate the reduction of GHG emissions from ships”, expanding the list of possible actions to include the use of incentives promoting sustainable low-carbon and zero-carbon shipping and support for the optimization of port calls.

How have ports responded to the call to lower emissions?

Global ports are taking the initiative and responding to the climate change fight in multiple ways.

Taking Singapore as an example, the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) has set ambitious targets to reduce absolute scope 1 and scope 2 carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and by 75% by 2040, from 2019 levels. PSA’s approach to achieving these targets combines (i) improving efficiencies to reduce energy consumption and (ii) switching to less-carbon intensive sources of energy, including solar power. Digitalisation is a key part of PSA’s strategy, enabling better allocation of resources and improving efficiencies such as reducing waiting and idling times for vessels and trucks by scheduling “just in time” berthing and container pick up and drop off.

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