How to clean up the dirty ports that handle our Black Friday junk

A new initiative gives report cards to the world’s top ports to show how they’re leading, or falling short, on efforts to decarbonize cargo shipping.

port with cranes
(Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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The deluge of discounted TVs, air fryers, yoga pants and mattresses on offer during the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush all likely passed through a port on their way from the factory to stores and warehouses. Maritime hubs are gateways to our global consumer economy, handling billions of tons of cargo every year. They’re also crucial links in the growing global effort to clean up cargo shipping. 

As the maritime sector works to curb its planet-warming emissions, ports are expected to play a pivotal role — both by storing low- and zero-emission fuels for ships and by building infrastructure to service next-generation vessels. Today, however, that work is only just beginning.

A new project by the Ports for People campaign scrutinizes the world’s top container ports to see where they’re making progress on decarbonization and — more often than not — where they’re falling short. The RePORT Card series, unveiled earlier this week, is meant to hold port leaders accountable in locales from Los Angeles and Manzanillo, Mexico, to Hong Kong and Durban, South Africa.

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We found that very few ports even have zero-emission goals or targets,” said Allyson Browne, the climate campaign manager for ports at Pacific Environment, the nonprofit leading the campaign. 

There may be a zero-emission target for the country itself,” she said. But that does nothing to address the shipping emissions that are coming in…or the port pollution that’s suffocating [the neighboring] communities.”

The RePORT Cards put ports into one of three categories: jumpstart, accelerate or full speed ahead. The Port of Manzanillo is in the lowest grouping. (Ports for People)

The release of the report cards followed a slew of shipping initiatives announced during the recent COP27 U.N. climate conference in Egypt. Shipping companies and industry leaders are facing increasing pressure from international regulators and everyday consumers alike to curb the emissions created by handling and moving clothes, chemicals, cars and countless other cargo across the sea.

Countries are recognizing that shipping has played a historic role [in global emissions] and that it’s still a big emitter,” said Aoife O’Leary, founder and CEO of Opportunity Green, a London-based climate group.

Cargo ships alone accounted for about 2 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2021. That percentage is expected to soar as more vessels deliver more goods in coming years, and as emissions from other sectors decline over time. Ships idling near shores and diesel-burning port equipment also spew significant amounts of cancer-causing particulate matter and smog-forming nitrogen oxides into surrounding communities.

New initiatives aim to break the clean-energy conundrum facing ports and ships

At the U.N. climate conference, the United States and Norway launched the Green Shipping Challenge, which includes more than 40 initiatives from companies, countries and port authorities.

One such initiative aims to establish a green-fuel corridor between ports in Shanghai and Los Angeles — the No. 1 and No. 17 busiest container hubs in the world, respectively. The ports and industry partners are developing plans to phase in ships using alternative fuels during this decade, with a goal of launching the world’s first zero-carbon container ships to cross the Pacific Ocean by 2030. Los Angeles is also partnering with the neighboring Port of Long Beach and with Singapore’s maritime authority to establish hubs of low- and zero-emission fuel supplies.

Separately, major maritime companies made the first concrete commitments to use green hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels — including ammonia and methanol — starting this decade. 

In a joint statement, shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk, engine maker MAN Energy Solutions, clean-energy nonprofit RMI and other participants pledged to support rapid adoption” of hydrogen made from renewable energy — with a goal of boosting production to 5.5 million metric tons per year by 2030 for use in shipping. That’s a sharp climb from the roughly 35,000 tons of green hydrogen produced worldwide in 2021, or 0.04 percent of total global production. All other hydrogen was made using fossil fuels. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

A rendering shows a future Maersk container ship powered by green methanol, which can be made by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide. (Maersk)

Such initiatives reflect a larger effort within the sector to solve the perpetual chicken-and-egg” problem that is stumping shipping’s clean energy transition, Browne said.

Ports say, We don’t want to develop zero-emission infrastructure because the ships aren’t ready,’” she said. And then shipowners say, Well, we don’t want to build zero-emission ships, because there’s nowhere to get zero-emission fuels.’” 

Report cards compare how ports are performing on climate progress

To jump-start action on the land side, Ports for People recently developed a nine-point playbook that outlines actions maritime hubs can take — such as offering financial incentives for cleaner ships that enter ports; replacing diesel-guzzling harbor craft with less polluting models; and purchasing more renewable electricity to power ships idling at berth and recharge battery-powered vessels and equipment.

With such criteria in mind, the environmental campaign followed up with the report-card series to assess the progress, or lack thereof, at 15 of the world’s top container ports. The group eventually plans to review all 50 ports included on the World Shipping Council’s list of busiest container ports.

We wanted to take a snapshot of where some of the biggest ports are today on this transition,” Browne explained. Rather than assign letter grades, the group put ports into one of three categories.

Ports in the jumpstart” group, the bottom category, are those that should immediately start planning and adopting zero-emission strategies. This includes Tanger Med, Morocco, which is the top port in Africa and a fast-growing hub, thanks to its proximity to Europe, but which lacks any formal climate target. 

(Ports for People)

Ports in the accelerate” bucket, the middle category, should expand and hasten their existing plans. Take Busan, on the southeastern coast of South Korea. The city’s port has a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050, has adopted electric cargo-loading cranes, and plans to unveil its first electric passenger ferry next year. Ports for People recommends that Busan also adopt a zero-emission shipping target for 2040 and fund efforts to produce greener fuels and build cleaner ships.

The ports in the top full speed ahead” category already have decarbonization plans in place, but may need to prioritize and focus on certain aspects. 

Ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Singapore and Vancouver fall into this higher grouping. They earned high marks for building shoreside charging infrastructure, electrifying port equipment and working to launch zero-emission ships by 2030. But all four were urged to abandon their support for using liquified natural gas as a marine fuel. Although LNG produces fewer air pollutants than today’s heavy fuel oil when burned in ships, it’s still a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Advocates say policy is a missing piece in cleaning up ports

To help maritime hubs fulfill many of Ports for People’s suggestions, regulators and government agencies will need to set stronger policies and provide more incentives to make the shift, Browne said. 

In the United States, for instance, the Inflation Reduction Act includes $3 billion to reduce air pollution and advance zero-emissions technology at ports. That’s on top of the $17 billion provided in the 2021 infrastructure law for upgrading ports and crucial waterways. But completely revamping ports’ fuel supplies and facilities and replacing dirty equipment at coastal and lakeside ports will likely cost billions more.

The same is true for efforts to scale green hydrogen, which so far are largely driven by company promises and not industry-wide rules compelling a shift to cleaner fuels, said O’Leary of Opportunity Green.

Investors and shipping companies are saying to regulators, Look, we are actually ready to move. But we need that [policy] signal,’” she said. Otherwise, it’s really quite a risky prospect for a shipping company, or even a hydrogen producer, to rely on shipping demand [scaling up] without the regulation.”

While the climate conference in Egypt brought shipping emissions into focus, the real work of setting maritime policies will happen later in London. The International Maritime Organization, a U.N. body, is slated to hold environmental meetings in December and next summer to negotiate a net-zero emissions target for 2050

O’Leary said that, given the recent momentum, she feels optimistic that negotiators might finally set meaningful rules to limit shipping emissions and boost investment in cleaner fuels. Whether that’ll be enough to decarbonize shipping in just a few decades remains to be seen.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.