Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Is Bigger Better for the Environment?

If you’re asking the folks at Maersk,  the industry-leading Danish shipping company and proud owner of the new Triple E class of container ship, then the answer is a resounding, “Ja!”

At a quarter of a mile long, and with each ship containing as much steel as eight Eiffel Towers and have a capacity equivalent to 18,000 20-foot containers, when the Triple E launches in June, it will be the largest vessel on the seas.

If it sounds counterintuitive to you, then you are not alone. In this current era of “Hummers are bad, Smart Cars are good,” how can anything that weighs 165,000 metric tons be good for the environment?

"When you get bigger ships,” explains Unni Einemo of the online trade publication Sustainable Shipping, “you can more efficiently carry more cargo, so the carbon footprint you get per tonne of cargo is smaller. So on that basis, big is beautiful."

Maersk is so confident that the Triple E is the most environmentally friendly container ship yet, that it’s built right into into the name; the three E’s stand for economy of scale, energy efficiency and environmentally improved.

Some of the ship’s more popular features are its squarer profile which allows it to carry 16% more cargo, its re-designed engines, an improved waste-heat recovery system, and a speed cap at 23 knots - down from 25.  Maersk calculates this will produce 50% less carbon dioxide per container shipped than average on the Asia-Europe route. (No American harbour is equipped to handle a vessel of this size.)

To achieve maximum fuel efficiency, however, a ship has to be fully loaded.

"They are massive ships, and a really big ship running half-full is probably less energy-efficient overall than a smaller ship running with a full set of containers," says Einemo.

When these container ships leave Asia and arrive in Europe, they are full. However, with few goods going from Europe to Asia, when they leave the harbour, a significant proportion of containers carry nothing but air. (At any given moment about 20% of all containers on the world's seas are empty.)

According to the International Maritime Organization, the carbon footprint of international shipping is roughly equivalent to that of aviation - some 2.7% of the world's man-made CO2 emissions in the year 2000.

With the current 163 ships on the world's seas with a capacity over 10,000 TEU - and 120 more are on order, including Maersk's fleet of 10 Triple Es, it’s becoming an ever growing concern for green consumers.

However, according to the World Shipping Council, “Containerization has revolutionized the movement of goods and the increased efficiency of moving goods has produced numerous benefits including lower environmental impacts associated with the movement of products from one point to another. Container shipping is the most carbon efficient means of transporting most goods across the world.” 

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