Global Policy Forum

Maersk Claims New 'Mega Containers' Could Cut Shipping Emissions

The Danish shipping firm Maersk has placed an order for the largest container ships ever constructed. Maersk claims that the sheer size of the vessels will create dramatic cuts in carbon emissions because of efficiency related gains. Officials from the company claim that emissions per container will fall by half. Yet, due to their colossal size, these ships yield far more emissions than their predecessors in absolute terms, a fact notably absent from the Maersk media blitz promoting the large freighters.

By John Vidal

The Guardian
February 21, 2011

Danish firm signs a deal for 10 of the world's biggest ships that it says will save fuel and lower emissions

Think of a 400m-long row of 20-storey high office blocks cruising the ocean at the speed of Usain Bolt. Or a container ship as long as the Empire State building and as wide as an eight-lane motorway that is able to carry more than 860m bananas or 18m flat-screen televisions in 18,000 containers.

The sheer scale and capacity of what will be the largest vessels afloat - the first 10 of which were ordered on Monday by Danish shipping firm Maersk - is likely to change international shipping in the same way that the super-jumbo is revolutionising air transport or high-speed rail has changed the way people travel across continents.

While at 400m long and 73m tall the new "Triple-E" container ships will be only marginally longer and taller than the current biggest class of vessel, the 160,000-tonne ships will be able to carry nearly 20% more containers than previously because of their width. Maersk has signed a $1.9bn (£1.17bn) contract with Korean shipbuilders Daewoo for the first 10, with an option for 20 more. The first order will be completed in two to four years.

The company hopes to be able to cut the cost of transporting a container from China to Europe by 26%. "These are probably the largest ships you will see built for some years. We could have made them longer but ports would have had to be enlarged. We could not make them wider because port cranes can only reach across 23 or 24 containers," said Maersk chief executive officer Eivind Kolding in London.

But the ships, which are nearly twice as large as the majority of the world's 9,000 container ships, were designed solely for the China-Europe route. Only Felixstowe in Britain, and Rotterdam and Bremerhaven in mainland Europe will have the facilities to handle them, along with Port Said in Egypt and just four ports in the east, including Shanghai and Hong Kong.

"They will definitely stimulate further trade between China and Europe, but they are too big for any ports in north or south America. Eventually we would like to be able to take them to the US but for the moment they would take four or five days to be unloaded there," said Kolding.

Maersk admitted it had been stung by criticisms in the past few years that the global shipping industry, which it dominates, had failed to reduce its carbon emissions. Shipping is responsible for 3-4% of global emissions, largely because it traditionally burns cheap but heavily polluting "bunker" fuel.

Yesterday Maersk sought to position itself as environmentally responsible, saying that $30m (£18.45m), or one-sixth of the total cost of each vessel, would go towards fuel-saving and emissions reduction. The vessels' twin engines have been designed to run slower, waste heat will be recovered and instead of using nearly 200 tonnes of fuel a day, the new ships should be able to run on around 100 tonnes.

"We have rethought the whole ship. We are setting a new bar, or standard. These ships will operate at fuel consumption of 50% less than the industry average and 20% better than the existing best. They will travel at 19 knots (21.8mph) an hour rather than 23 knots (26.5mph) and the emissions will be 50% less [per container]. The ships could travel even slower but you reach a point when transit time becomes an issue," said Kolding.

The improvement was cautiously welcomed by environment and development groups. "Shipping is the lifeblood of international trade, but it is also a source of carbon emissions bigger than many industrialised countries, and set to treble by 2050. Efficiency improvements to engines are part of the solution, but only by setting a cap can governments really get a grip," said Tim Gore, Oxfam's climate change policy adviser.

But the company could not say how much less air pollution the ships would emit. In international waters, sulphur and nitrogen emissions are barely regulated and the largest container ships have been found to emit as much sulphur and nitrogen pollutants as 50m cars. New laws will force reduction in some areas but the technology has not been developed yet to fully "scrub" the diesel emissions of mega ships like those planned by Maersk. In addition, European air quality standards are far more lax for shopping than those of the US.

"We are working hard on the technology but we do not know yet how it will have developed by the time these ships are delivered," said a Maersk spokesman.


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