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3 Ways to Make The Global Shipping Industry More Sustainable and Reduce Carbon Emissions

 Just How Big is the Shipping industry?


Enormous! In our increasingly globalized world, most of the goods we buy and consume, especially nonperishable goods, arrive by port. 

Roughly around 90% of world’s goods are transported by sea. The count of people part of this industry crosses over 12 million which includes labor workers and other business and technical employees.


Almost all our daily household things are dependent on this industry. Things like salt, sugar, vegetables, soap, cement, cables, metals and many other regular use products are made available door to door due to the invention of shipping. On average, keeping aside the seasonal fluctuations, bulk carrier ships carry an equal to around 8 billion ton–miles of commodities every year.

Everything from fuel to cosmetics is transported with help of cargo ships. This proves the  importance and size of the shipping industry. It connects the world by creating availability of all products globally. Even the thought of pause - even for a day - on global sea trade is no less than a nightmare.    

In this article I will be talking more about how big its impact on environment is and is there any way out to minimize its carbon footprint.

Sea trade contributes to world’s carbon footprint twice as much to carbon footprint by air traffic. It is estimated that one of the big cargos is approximately the length of around six football pitches.

One of these cargo ships could produce same amount of pollution as made by 50 million cars!

It has been estimated by European Parliament that by 2050 the current calculation of 3% of global emission by cargo ships will reach to 17% of global emissions!

The emissions from 15 mega cargo ships is equivalent to those from all cars in the world!

Yes, you read right! Isn’t this alarming?


1) Reducing CO2 emissions and limiting sulfur content

International shipping produces nearly one billion tons of CO2 emissions which is approximately 2-3 % of total man-made emissions. Reducing these emissions is very tough job which will take many decades work to bring it down, but we need to start it somewhere.


Most of the ships burn bunker fuel. It is heavy, toxic, doesn’t evaporates and emits more sulfur than other fuels. Burning bunker fuels generates 90% of all sulfur emissions globally. It is not only poisonous for sea beings but impacts sea bird and humans living near ports.


International Maritime Organization (IMO) took step in 2007 stating the limits on use of sulfur content in ship fuels starting from January 1,2020. IMO requires that all fuels produces sulfur emissions no more than 0.5 % which was initially around 3.5%.


It has been estimated by public health experts that once this came into action there will significant decrease in premature deaths and childhood asthma cased globally, and could prevent up to 150,000 premature deaths and 7.6 million cases of childhood asthma.


Sulfur Fuel Alternatives

Many shipping companies are now focusing on adopting a sulfur cap limit. But this isn’t as easy as shifting to from organic groceries!

Low sulfur alternatives are very expensive and less available than the not so old bunker fuels. This in flow will impact the economy by rising the freight rates and fuel shortage.

Regarding this matter, Esben Poulsson, the chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping raised his concern bringing forward its opinion which is a terrible truth - “At this moment no one knows what types of fuel will be available or at what price, specification, or in what quantity … we could be faced with an unholy mess with ships and cargos being stuck in port.”

Fuel shortages would cause inefficiencies and increase in cost because of expensive fuel plus ships will be forced to go to particular ports in order to refuel which have low sulfur fuel.


2) Installation of Scrubbers

Another alternative escape found by few companies is the installation of scrubbers. A scrubber is a device that transfers sulfur emissions from the exhaust gas to a disposal unit and discharges them often into the sea. Since according to IMO, 2020 it regulates the emissions but not the actual sulfur content of fuel itself so rather than shifting to more expensive fuel, shippers are working upon capturing sulfur before it passes to the atmosphere by using scrubbers.

But until now, only 1 % of global shipping count has been installed with scrubbers. Just like any other alternative this also has negatives and problems associated with it:


  1. Space constraints for older and smaller vessels: scrubbers are not available for every ship since it needs space for installation in ships and hence is difficult to be installed in small ships and ships which are already built according to other retro needs.
  2. Lengthy time to implement: Time spent in manufacturing of scrubbers is around four to six months and then two to four weeks in installation.


3) Traditional Sailing Ships 

In July, a great step was taken by one of the suppliers of cosmetics company Lush. Lush received its shipment from its suppliers which arrived not from any cargo ship or truck but through sailing ship.

Now imagine how ethical and eco- friendly this alternative is. I think this is the most eco – friendly since it involves very minimal use of any kind of fuel.

Now let me tell you another fact about this trip of Lush cosmetics which you all might already have question about in your mind:

How long was the voyage?


The whole trip took 4 weeks which could have been finished in around 5 days if covered by truck for same distance. This is a major con of this alternative. More time means more money, and more time taken completing shipping orders can destroy supply lines of many industries that rely on continuous shipments. 

Another challenge for shifting to traditional sailing ship is the acceptance of it at ports. Many ports have revolutionized and become modern matching to modern container ships therefore they have stopped accepting the traditional sailing ships. Now the old ships must look for new accommodations which have a huge possibility that is far from the normal route hence leading to more time taken in meeting the demand.


Real, sustainable change doesn’t come easy and cheap!

All alternatives are more expensive than most common conventional techniques, but using good judgment in case specific situations can minimize costs for transitioning to alternative means of transportation, fuel, or emission reducing technology.  


For example, traditional sailing ships could prove very beneficial if demand is forecasted way earlier and orders are placed well in advance with shipments that have less dependency on time.  This may work better for perishable and luxury goods that are shipped with minimal frequency. 

Scrubbers could be very beneficial in long term for big cargos with small investment now but great outputs in future.

Low sulfur fuels are beneficial for almost all kinds of ships and container cargos since there is no deposition of sulfur anywhere, but there must be enough infrastructure and supply of low sulfur fuels at all major ports for this to be a feasible international option.   If governments, companies, and NGO's work together on this - this could be the best long term option for the industry, especially if governments are willing to subsidize the cost of implementation. 


Shippers need to be conscious of the future and recognize they must act now to minimize their carbon footprint and all toxic emissions - or else costly consumer pressure couple with governmental regulation in the future could cost them much more!




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