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A Green Future for Freight Forwarding

Environmental Impact in Sea Freight Shipping

With the impact that climate change is making on our planet and civilisation, humans are investigating ways of becoming more environmentally friendly.

The freight forwarding and shipping industry in particular currently have limited options open to them. Ocean-going vessels for sea freight, aircraft for air freight, and trains and trucks for road transportation still rely primarily upon fossil fuels.

Additionally, the international freight industry typically deals with very large equipment (vessels averaging upwards of 100,000 tonnes deadweight). Because of the size and scope of the shipping industry, there are types of environmental impact other than the carbon footprint. These include marine noise pollution and other forms of air or water pollution.

The good news is; much research and development are being done to address these issues. Furthermore, legislation has been introduced in many countries aimed at limiting shipping pollution in all its forms.

Let’s start by looking at some of the research into alternative propulsion methods and types of fuel for shipping.

Alternative Marine Fuels

The development of alternative fuels is driven primarily by the need to reduce carbon emissions (as well as nitrogen and sulphur emissions). Whilst each of the alternative fuels mentioned below achieves this aim, the difficulty is in making the fuel production process economically viable. This will be an important challenge over the coming years.


Hydrogen is currently seen as a promising option for eventually fuelling cargo ships and reducing environmental impact. Stored in fuel cells, hydrogen would power the ships propulsion, electricity generation requirements, and heating.

There are two types of hydrogen fuel available:

  • Blue hydrogen, which is generated as part of natural gas or coal production, with carbon emissions being captured and sequestered.
  • Green hydrogen, which is produced by electrolysis using renewable electricity from sources such as wind or solar.

Hydrogen can be completely emissions-free up to the point of combustion, however, it does have some drawbacks. Hydrogen is highly flammable and requires special storage conditions. It also has a relatively low energy value (meaning you need a lot of it to power something).

Combusting hydrogen in some circumstances can also produce nitrogen oxides (harmful pollutants) which would need to be captured as part of the process.

Green Ammonia

Ammonia is seen as a viable option to hydrogen. It has a much higher energy density and can be stored more easily and safely.

Ammonia can be produced from green hydrogen, loaded and stored on the ship, then converted back to hydrogen onboard.

The downsides to this fuel alternative are cost and toxicity. As there is an additional production step beyond green hydrogen, this will push the cost up. Also, ammonia is highly toxic to animals (both human and marine life). This will require careful handling.


Methanol is already used as a fuel for some shipping and is available at over 100 ports globally.

Whilst is offers a generally clean fuel option, methanol does have a relatively high amount of formaldehyde emissions. It also has only a moderate energy density, delivering less mileage and requiring more frequent refuelling.

Some ships are being developed as dual-fuel vessels, given the option for various fuel usage depending upon the circumstances.

There is an additional issue with all of these alternative fuel sources; for them to become mainstream, a massive change in infrastructure will be required.

Clean Propulsion and Fuel Reduction Methods

Another way of reducing emissions is to make existing fuel usage more efficient. By reducing the fuel usage of a given voyage by 20% you thereby reduce emissions by 20% (as well as fuel costs, of course).

This goal is driving the development of new technologies that were not previously considered a priority. Energy efficiency technologies such as optimisation systems for steering and propulsion can deliver considerable fuel savings.

Other systems are available that monitor power production and match generation with predicted requirements much more accurately. By eliminating energy wastage, ships require less fuel.

Another growing trend, perhaps seen as an easy win, is wind-assisted ship propulsion. By adding sail-like configurations, sometimes to existing ship infrastructure, significant savings in fuel usage can be made. The “sails” take advantage of prevailing wind conditions to help propel the ships.

Lowering Carbon Emissions and Other Pollutants

Carbon dioxide is a primary emission contributing to climate change, however, there are other harmful pollutants as well.

Two common polluting emissions in the shipping industry are nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides. Both of these are generated (along with CO2) with the combustion of traditional hydrocarbon fuels. Methods for onboard capturing and sequestering these pollutants is a goal for new technologies

Carbon capture systems for shipping are in ongoing development, with options recently becoming available and tested.

Alternative fuels do not have problems with sulphur oxide emissions, however, nitrogen oxides can still be an issue with hydrogen.  Ships using these fuels also require onboard systems for nitrogen oxide capture in order to remove these pollutants.

Noise Pollution

Up until now, we have spoken only about fuel usage in the shipping industry. There are other forms of marine pollution and environmental impact which shipping is a major cause of; namely noise pollution.

Marine noise pollution can have a serious impact on marine life, especially larger mammals such as whales and dolphins. It affects their ability to communicate properly, a little like a human trying to speak with someone at a loud party. This can lead to issues with navigation, such as mass strandings.

High levels of marine noise is also correlated with an increase in stress hormones with species of crabs and fish. This causes them to spend more time looking for danger than caring for offspring, with mortality rates increasing dramatically as a result.

More work is currently underway to understand the impact of marine noise and methods for avoiding it. The DNV classifications organisation has started a classification standard for ship noise, called the SILENT class notation. These offer goals and guidelines for measuring and reducing underwater noise in shipping and other marine activities.

Bans and Legislation – reducing environmental impact through law

The final angle this article notes with regard to progress for environmental protection is legal. In recent years there has been a growing understanding of the damage being done to the planet through human activity. In many countries legislation has been introduced to recognise and address this.

The current global standard for addressing pollution from shipping is, The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). This forms the basis from which many governments around the world introduce laws surrounding shipping.

These include, amongst others:

  • Guidelines for the maximum level of sulphur content in shipping fuel oil.
  • Ban for the usage and carriage of heavy fuel oil (HFO) in arctic regions.
  • Recommendations for the treatment and suitable disposal of toxic or polluting substances in the shipping industry.
  • Recommendations for the treatment and disposal of traditional garbage and waste created onboard ships.

Whilst there is much work to do, progress is being made. Many governments and companies are beginning to see the benefits, both environmentally and economically, of promoting change in the industry.

SPLS believe in supporting this change and actively look for environmentally friendly options in shipping, where possible. We can help develop shipping plans that take this into consideration.

If you are concerned about the environmental impact of your ocean freight shipping, come and speak with us.