Down with the Ship

By Alex Posner 

There are over 90,000 cargo ships that snake their way around the globe delivering the products and materials that drive our modern economy. They whisk items from port and port, enable the globalization of commerce, and, in sum, account for the transport of 90 percent of global trade. At the same time, however, container ships are leading contributors to climate change.

Cargo ships are often palatial. The global shipping company Maersk’s new Triple-E ships, for example, are the largest ever built. They contain over 55,000 tons of steel and measure 1,312 feet in length. To put that in perspective, a single Triple-E ship can house a football stadium, basketball court, and hockey stadium lined up adjacently.

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A fully loaded ship is tugged away from a series of container cranes (images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

These mammoth machines guzzle through fuel at a rate of 16 tons per hour — equivalent to nearly 400 tons a day. They consume 86 percent of the oil exported from Saudi Arabia. And, to make matters worse, they burn waste fuel — the thick residue that remains after the oil refining process.

Waste oil is both the cheapest and most environmentally destructive source of energy available today. Its sulfur content is 2,000 times that of diesel and its level of nitrogen is also disproportionately high. One giant ship emits as much chemical pollution per year as 50 million cars; considered more broadly, according to The Guardian, just 15 of the world’s largest ships spew more toxic chemicals than every car on the planet combined.

This air pollution has stunning human costs. According to one projection, exhaust generated by container ships is responsible for 60,000 annual deaths and leads to $330 billion in health care costs. The concomitant spike in respiratory illness results in millions of days of lost productivity.

Fortunately, there have been attempts to address theses problems. In 2008, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a 230-mile buffer zone to prevent cargo ships from discharging dangerous chemicals close to shore. This buffer area, which stretches along the entire U.S. coastline, is projected to cut sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions by upwards of 80 percent. And, according to an EPA analysis, these changes will prevent over 8,000 premature deaths each year.

In addition, many new cargo ships feature emissions-reducing technologies. Maersk’s new Triple-E ship produces 50 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions per container, compared to the industry average. These ships contribute less to climate change (per ton of goods) than trucks, trains, or airplanes.

While these developments are important, the majority of ships have not been retrofitted with emission-reducing technologies. At the same time, China’s rise as a manufacturing hub has produced a growing need for transport vessels. As globalization continues, this demand for cargo ships will only increase.

Now, more than ever, greater political capital should be directed towards modernizing the world’s fleet of transport ships. While politicians and environmental activists have worked to reduce emissions from cars — an important and timely effort — curbing container ship exhaust should be similarly prioritized.

The EPA’s foray into cargo ship buffer zones represents an important first step. The U.S.’s leadership on this issue — coupled with its status as a hub of global commerce — will hopefully spur shipping companies to install exhaust scrubbers and shift to cleaner fuels. Foreign-flagged cargo vessels account for 90 percent of U.S. port traffic, so these new regulations, scheduled for introduction in 2015, will have significant global reach.

In addition, standards established by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) call for sulfur content in marine fuel to decline 90 percent by 2020. This goal remains tentative and depends on the results of a comprehensive review the IMO has promised to publish by 2018. The international community should help to expedite the report’s release and stand in firm support of the recommended regulations.

Photo 3 (wiki commons)

These reforms, however, will be costly. The EPA’s new buffer zone, according to U.S. government calculations, will saddle shipping companies with a $3.2 billion burden. A separate study, prepared by the World Shipping Council, found that the IMO’s regulations will cost between $75 and $100 billion — a reflection of the $300-$400 higher sticker price for each ton of cleaner fuel. Ultimately, transport companies will pass these costs on to customers in the form of higher freight rates.

Despite the costs, greater regulation of container ships makes economic sense. While the EPA’s buffer zone will cost $3.2 billion, it is also expected to yield $28 billion in health care savings. And while freight rates may increase by around $18 per 20-foot container shipped from China to the U.S., such costs are equivalent to

The IMO’s new pollution requirements have drawn widespread approval, including from the World Shipping Council (WSC), a lobbying group that represents the maritime transport industry. In a press release, the organization praised the new standards as “environmentally effective.” The WSC commended the IMO for establishing “a predictable, international regulatory mechanism for both fuel and engine standards” and for avoiding an “undue disruption of world oil refining capacity.”

Alex Posner ’18 is in Morse College. His blog focuses on climate change, energy technology, and sustainability. Contact him at