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Meet the Change Makers: Maersk Gets Shipshape

A rendering of one of the new, energy-efficient shipping vessels that Maersk will soon dispatch to carry goods around the world.
The world’s largest shipping line orders up efficiency. Maersk Line executive Jacob Sterling tells us how.

If global commerce has a circulatory system, it’s the network of thousands of container vessels that ply the world’s oceans, moving goods from port to port. On a typical run, one of these floating juggernauts might pick up thousands of tons of the latest e-gizmos from Shanghai, then a load of toys from Hong Kong to deliver to U.S. consumers. On the return trip, it might haul grain and other commodities from the Midwest, along with recycled paper and metal scrap harvested from New York City’s trash. Over the past half-century, the worldwide adoption of neatly stackable, truck-sized container boxes has driven down freight costs by 99 percent while spurring growth in global trade nearly 100-fold. Without the humble container ship, your glossy iPad would still be a figment of some designer’s imagination.

The dark side of this oceanic trade boom is pollution. Because they burn "bunker fuel" -- the dirtiest and therefore cheapest type of oil  -- the world’s floating freighters emit staggering volumes of black, sooty pollution. Recent EU estimates suggest that in a single year, a single gargantuan container ship vents the same amount of smog-forming sulfur oxide (SOx) gases as 50 million cars annually. By that count, it takes less than two dozen of the largest container vessels to belch out the same amount of pollution as the world’s entire stock of roughly one billion vehicles. In fact, the world’s freighter fleet is responsible for about 3.5 percent of global warming emissions, about twice the share of the aviation sector.

Ongoing Series: Meet the Change Makers

In the face of these numbers, Maersk Line, the world’s largest operator of container vessels, is taking steps to green its operations. This isn’t an entirely altruistic effort on Maersk’s part -- it knows new air-pollution rules are soon tightening in both the EU and the United States and wants to get the jump. Last February, the Copenhagen-based company announced that it plans to build the largest, most energy-efficient container ships on the seas. In a deal with Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, Maersk inked plans to buy 10 new energy-efficient vessels, with options for 20 more, to be delivered by 2016. They ain’t cheap: At around $190 million apiece, and more than 1,300 feet long, the new ships will carry 18,000 containers apiece -- 16 percent more than today’s largest vessels. Maersk says they will emit 20 percent less carbon dioxide per container, and featuring advanced new engines, consume 35 percent less fuel per container.

OnEarth’s Adam Aston talked with Jacob Sterling, Maersk Line’s head of climate and environment, about how the company’s very big boats can make a smaller impact on the environment.

Jacob SterlingFreight ships are among the largest mobile objects in the world. How do you decrease the environmental impact of their operations?

One way is what we call "slow steaming." In a vessel as big as a freighter, if you cut speed by 20 percent, we found you cut fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by as much as 40 percent. We don’t run all lines 20 percent slower all the time, but we aim to do it as much as possible. For example, we may run slow on a delivery of low-value scrap metal and paper going from Europe to China, but boost speed on the return trip when we’re moving more valuable, time-sensitive fashion apparel. Also, if you slow a given vessel down by 20 percent you might need to add more ships to that route to ensure reliable service for the customer. Overall, though, we see 5 to 15 percent savings in fuel and CO2 emissions on routes that are slow steaming.

Are your big shipping customers asking for greener shipping options?

It’s growing in importance and is part of a mix of services they are seeking. But it can be challenging for them because the push to save energy and cut costs runs counter to many years of trying to make supply chains more efficient. That means that until now the paradigm has been: faster, faster, faster. So much so that in 2007, we took delivery of new, super-fast freight vessels -- compared to regular freighters, they’re practically speed boats -- that could go almost 30 knots [35 mph]. Conventional vessels cruise at around 25 knots [29 mph], and slow steaming is 20 knots [23 mph].

Truth Squad

Checking industry claims with NRDC's sustainability experts

Last June in Belgium, Maersk CEO Eivind Kolding told leaders of the world’s great shipping lines that if they are to maintain their role as primary carriers of the world’s goods, the industry must change. As environmental concerns multiply and technology improves, he said, the industry must reduce emissions and clean up operations.

Prodding its peers toward greener practices is nothing new for Maersk. The company “has consistently been ahead of the pack on a wide range of environmental issues,” says Rich Kassel, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s clean fuels and vehicles project. “It has continually signaled where environmental performance will go next.”

Maersk voluntarily lowered sulfur levels in its fuel at U.S. ports years before rules required it. Other industry players resisted the move, arguing that the use of high-sulfur bunker fuel was the only way to stay profitable. But emissions from the dirtier bunker fuels take a huge toll, both on nearby communities -- typically low-income communities of color, which bear the brunt of the harm -- and nationally, causing tens of thousands of premature deaths every year, as well as increased asthma emergencies and other serious health problems.

Maersk proved that it was possible to use cleaner fuel and still make profits. And its move made it easier for the International Maritime Organization and government regulators to require its competitors to follow suit. “When Maersk shows that something works, it’s easier to advance policies that change the entire industry,” Kassel says.

In the wake of Maersk’s switch to cleaner fuel, the IMO adopted new rules that will soon require all ships to use cleaner fuels whenever they are operating within 200 miles of U.S. coasts. Starting in 2015, ships in this zone will use fuel that contains 97 percent less sulfur than today’s average. This switch will translate into 14,000 fewer premature deaths and $110 billion in health care savings per year by 2020, Kassel says. --Adam Aston

But now we’re selling off the speed boats because they’re so inefficient at slower speeds. Instead, the vessels we will take delivery of this year will have wide hull shapes and advanced engines that recapture waste heat, to be more efficient, not faster.

Is there any promise in efforts to replace the pollutant-heavy bunker fuel with biofuels?

We’re looking into it. But the volumes we need mean it’s a ways off still. The first generation of biofuels has been disappointing. Often these fuels don’t score well in terms of how much CO2 they actually save [over their entire life cycle] relative to fossil fuels. And the quantities, so far, are too low for our needs. But we’re optimistic. Unlike jets, which need very pure biofuels that remain stable at very low temperatures, our engines could work on biofuels that are less refined. It would certainly help with the challenge we face of getting sulfur out of our fuel supply, because biofuels have close to none.

In port cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle and Hong Kong, freighters are a major source of air pollution. How can you change this?

While in port and while approaching them, we’ve already begun to switch to cleaner marine diesel fuels. In Hong Kong, one of the world’s busiest ports, we led this effort, voluntarily, in a way that led about a dozen other shipping lines to do the same.

In port, the cleaner marine diesel we use is closer to automotive diesel. In Hong Kong, for instance, the fuel we’re using has just 0.1 to 0.5 percent sulfur, whereas regular bunker fuel has up to 20 times more. Bunker fuel isn’t like normal oil. It’s more like asphalt. It has to be heated first before it can be pumped into engines to be burnt.

What about using plug-in electric sources in port, as are offered in Los Angeles and other ports? Are those a factor in cutting pollution, and are they spreading in use?

Shoreside power is certainly a way to cut pollution -- but it’s only an option in ports. We are looking into shoreside power, but it does have the downside that we then become dependent on the power sources available locally. Most often electricity production is based on fossil fuels, so it is not a silver bullet.

How well is the global shipping business prepared for the inevitability of rising oil prices?

Higher and more volatile fuel prices have become the new normal in the shipping industry. Increasing fuel prices increase the price on transportation, but they also has the effect that those shipping lines that are best at saving energy and fuel save a lot of money and are more profitable. So increasing fuel prices can actually drive development of cleaner shipping.

Step back and consider the full scope of Maersk Line’s efforts to green its operations. What has been the overall impact?

Since 2007, we have reduced our relative CO2 emissions by more than 14 percent per container moved. This is due to the introduction of slow steaming, as well as our continuous focus on running our vessels more efficiently. In terms of changing the culture of our company, it’s difficult to say. It has always been in the values of Maersk Line to protect the environment and try to be a good global citizen. But now environmental performance is a key element of our business strategy. I think that we as employees will become more aware of the role we play in driving Maersk Line and the shipping industry towards better environmental performance.

How do you feel the industry as a whole is responding to this challenge?

I think that the industry could step up its efforts to develop CO2 regulations for shipping. And Maersk Line strongly supports the goals of the International Maritime Organization to develop them. But without global CO2 regulations for shipping, the sector as a whole risks being seen as a laggard even though it has real potential to drive the transition toward an economy that uses fewer fossil fuels and produces less CO2.

image of Adam Aston
Adam Aston is a freelance journalist and editor who focuses on green issues. Previously, Adam was energy and environment editor at BusinessWeek, where he covered corporate sustainability, renewable energy, and green finance while producing a regular ... READ MORE >
too bad you did not ask Maersk about their policy and actions regarding whale strikes by shipping traffic! Things like shipping lanes, reduced speeds, etc.