Shipping: Setting Sail - Challenges for Sea Transport

European Mobility Atlas 2021

Maritime transport is the most important, most efficient, but also dirtiest way of shipping goods. Not covered by the Paris Agreement, the industry is trying to set guidelines for a more environment-friendly maritime transport.

Maritime shipping routes and their main destinations
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High traffic on transatlantic and transpacific shipping routes mirrors the interdependency of these markets. Asia is clearly dominating the market when it comes to container shipping.

Transporting cargo is a vital aspect of international trade and maritime logistics are a primary function of shipping on a global scale. Cargo ships carry billions of tons of commodities along maritime trade routes. Maritime shipping is the most efficient low-cost, but also the dirtiest transportation method, and over 90 percent of world trade and 94 percent of developing country trade is handled by maritime shipping. Most ships still burn dirty heavy fuel oil, especially when they are in international waters. Shipping is not covered by the EU's Energy Taxation Directive.

The shipping sector is also not covered by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Even so, the Paris Agreement contains non-binding targets for reducing gross annual shipping greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050 relative to 2008, starting as soon as possible. In addition, the new 0.5 percent global sulphur emission cap which entered into force on 1 January 2020 will apply to about 70,000 ships worldwide.

Development of maritime trade
Maritime transport plays an important role in the world’s economy. While container ships are booming, 75 percent of tonnage is still dry and liquid bulk.

Another major problem is the use of flags of convenience. Shipowners register their vessels in countries other than the country in which they themselves are registered. That way, they can avoid (higher) taxes and circumvent national labour and environmental regulations.

Positive aspects of shipping include the 'greening' of port handling by reducing their GHG emissions. Many larger port authorities are currently undertaking projects to improve cargo handling equipment and techniques.

Shore-to-ship power offers ships in harbour the possibility to shut down their fossil-fuel engines and run vital equipment on shore-based electricity. Burning crude oil in order to keep the ships’ systems running has been banned in most European ports. 

Countries with a big shipping sector are in a strong position to renew their logistics and transportation services, making them smarter, more efficient, and environmentally friendly. The Greek-owned fleet is the biggest among European nations. Greece is the top ship-owning economy of the world, owning 10.2 percent (in terms of commercial value) of total global ships, 53 percent of all European ships and 17.8 percent of global total dead-weight tonnage. The vast majority (85.2 percent) of Greek ships are registered under a foreign flag. Taxing shipowners in Greece has not been a priority of Greek governments in the last century. Maritime shipping in Greece represents almost 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The majority of operations in Europe pass through the ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg. The advantage of these ports is their relatively good infrastructure connection to the most important markets and industrial sites. Southern European ports face the disadvantage of geographical barriers such as the Alps and an unfavourable hinterland connection with the need to cross the entire Balkans in order to reach central Europe.

The Marine Environment Protection Committee adopted mandatory requirements in October 2016 for ships to record and report their consumption of fuel oil with the Guidelines for the development of a Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP). This International Maritime Organisation (IMO) consumption data collection system came into effect in March 2018, requiring ships of 5,000 gross tonnage and above to submit annual reports on fuel oil consumption to their administrations. To accelerate the transition to zero GHGs shipping, A.P. Møller-Mærsk, Europe’s biggest shipping company and a global tycoon in maritime trade, set a new and optimistic target in 2018 to emit zero CO2 emissions from its activities by 2050. But the company has also been found to have out-flagged older vessels in order to cheaply scrap them on South-Asian beaches. While the relevance of maritime trade will continue to grow, it is even more important to green this sector and to enhance and enforce international rules and regulations. An example for this is the recent push by the European Parliament to include shipping in the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).

Shipping's share of greenhouse emissions
Maritime shipping is the lowest emitter of CO2 per ton of products transported per kilometre.

Sources for data and graphics: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Review of Maritime Transport 2019,; The Geography of Transport Systems, Main Maritime Shipping Routes,; European Environment Agency, Greenhouse gas emissions from transport in Europe,