Containergeddon; Let’s Talk Sustainable Shipping

Flat World Partners
5 min readDec 23, 2021


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No doubt you are aware of how global supply chains are stressed, resulting in shortages and delays for everything from semiconductors, tennis rackets, watches, Peloton bikes, to couches. Initially this was the result of pandemic-induced factory closures in Asia and elsewhere. As we learn to live with the virus and global demand rebounds with a vengeance, the pain point has switched to logistics. Particularly shipping.

In Southern California — your author’s homeland — a quick view from the beach reveals a sort of “Containergeddon” as a record 100 vessels float and wait off the coast to unload in the port of Los Angeles. We are witnessing a massive, unprecedented traffic jam of Earth’s largest sea vessels. Last week, President Biden unveiled a plan to keep the Port of Los Angeles open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to relieve pressure on the distressed supply chain. But the logistics nightmare that is unfolding isn’t just an issue of docking. There is a dearth of trucking, storage, and train capacity to warehouse and distribute the goods flowing into the United States with no central coordination. Not to mention the clogging of the ports has prevented export goods from making it onto the ships when they are fully unloaded. Talk about a future trade imbalance!

This crisis highlights not only the aging and uncoordinated infrastructure in the United States logistics system, but our massive dependence on aging and inefficient container ships. Cargo ships that ferry as much as 90 percent of the world’s products also produce nearly 3 percent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions each year — an estimated nearly 1.1 billion tons that rivals the annual output of Germany, the world’s sixth-largest emitter. Even more revealing is that the global shipping industry is on course to see its greenhouse gas emissions rise by around a fifth by 2050, unless major changes are implemented,

Last month, a major maritime industry association proposed a plan for a global levy on carbon emissions from ships to help speed the transition away from carbon-emitting fuels. Under the proposal backed by the International Chamber of Shipping and submitted to the U.N.’s shipping agency, vessels conducting trade globally above a certain size would pay a set amount per metric ton of carbon dioxide they emit. The surcharge collected would then go toward a climate fund to pay for infrastructure in ports around the globe to supply cleaner fuel alternatives

In an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in global trade, a coalition of companies that includes Amazon and Ikea has pledged to use only ocean shippers that use zero-carbon fuel by 2040. The pledge to decarbonize ocean shipping within the next two decades came with calls for policymakers to help transform the industry. The coalition urged government officials to set ambitious marine fuel goals, implement regulations and market-based measures to encourage the rapid development of new fuels and technology, and allow zero-carbon shipping fuels to “become competitive with fossil fuels as soon as possible.”

Sustainability statements by corporations are a good sign, but 2040 is a long way to action. Coordinated effort to improve global logistics, sustainable fuels, and shipping standards are immediate issues impacting not just environmental but also economic life.

Derek Books, Senior Associate

In a major step forward for the decarbonization of shipping, Maersk has announced plans to purchase eight container vessels that can run on “green” methanol and deliver goods for the growing number of firms around the world that have set net zero-emission targets.

Many shipment providers, including UPS, allow you the off-set your carbon footprint directly through the provider. While it is an off-set and not necessarily a development in sustainable technology adoption, it is a good place to start.

This map is an incredible animated and interactive visualization of global commercial shipping, created by Kiln for the UCL Energy Institute.

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