26. May 2021

What role do ports play in achieving the climate goals?

Written by Dörte Nitt-Driesselmann and Jan Wedemeier, Hamburgisches WeltWirtschafts Institut (HWWI)

A large part of the European transport of goods takes place by ship. In order to be able to comply with international climate agreements, port facilities that provide the infrastructure for maritime activities must in future be operated more sustainably and with lower emissions. The prerequisites must be created in order to be able to reduce the local CO2 footprints at the respective locations.

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In 2019, 46% of the value of EU-28 exports and 56% of the value of EU-28 imports were shipped. Increasing global economic integration will lead to a further increase in sea trade. Without additional policy measures, emissions from international maritime transport are expected to increase by 23% by 2035 compared to 2015.

It is estimated that 2.5-3.6% of total global CO2 greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to shipping. The share in terms of global nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions is around 13-15%. Since ships are mainly operated with fossil fuels, they also emit other substances such as nitrogen oxides or particulate matter.

In 2011 the European Commission set out a roadmap with initiatives to improve mobility and reduce CO2 emissions in transport by 60% by 2050. In the shipping sector, emissions are to be reduced by at least 40%. In addition, a 50 percent shift of passenger and freight traffic over a medium distance from road to rail and waterway is planned. In 2015, the EU also adopted a strategy to gradually integrate marine emissions into EU policy. Since 2017, shipping companies have had to record relevant information on emissions resulting from shipping to and from ports and within the ports of the European Economic Area (EEA). The first emissions reports were due in 2019.

Ports are a crucial hub in the global transport chain. They must comply with the EU statutes for industrial infrastructure and companies and are operated in accordance with national regulations. There are currently no regulations of the EU Commission that explicitly deal with the CO2 footprint of ports or set savings targets to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050.

In addition to the maritime infrastructure, ports also provide facilities for non-maritime activities such as power generation or industrial production at their locations. Formally and legally, however, a port is solely responsible for CO2 emissions inside and not for those outside the port area. Since the multi-functionality of the ports means that their effects on the local CO2 footprint cannot be limited to the port processes, the decarbonization of sustainable ports requires that green ports work in a resource-efficient and emission-saving manner in both mobile and stationary sources.

In addition to the large seaports, there are many smaller ports with regional economic importance in Europe. These ports face two specific challenges. On the one hand, the financial resources are often limited; on the other hand, they must be able to survive in competition among regional ports. This is usually done by specializing in special transports and project cargoes, the growth opportunities of which are favored by the increasing international division of labor and the corresponding realignment of value chains in entire industries.

One possibility for regional ports to develop innovatively is to position them as nodes for the consolidation of preliminary services and their possible final production. In this context, environmental issues are of great importance. Smaller ports have enormous development potential if they push ahead with the implementation of environmental protection measures.

Energy consumption in the form of fossil fuels is the main source of emissions in maritime transport. Replacing them with alternative, less emission-intensive energy sources offers the greatest potential for decarbonising maritime transport. But smaller regional, specialized ports can also make their contribution by working as green ports with both mobile and stationary emitters in a resource-efficient manner and operating intelligent management for this. Through suitable incentive systems, they can also contribute to reducing emissions outside their port area. For example, they can oblige providers of hinterland transport to comply with certain environmental requirements,

Ports have already taken significant sustainable development initiatives in recent years. Nevertheless, the challenges for fulfilling the climate agreement remain immense. It must be doubted whether the necessary decarbonization can be achieved through the current international CO2 trading system. The sectors involved must be expanded and the number of certificates traded must be reduced. As an accompanying measure, the introduction of a Pigou tax could also be considered. In order to set incentives for avoiding emissions, negative external effects for society resulting from economic activities are internalized and the polluter is taxed.

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