Maersk Line, the world’s largest container ship operator, is building a fleet of the world’s largest container vessels—a deal that includes 10 firm orders and another 20 on option for a total potential cost of $5.7 billion—to transport freight in the Asia-Europe trade.
The Danish company is calling these behemoths—each capable of carrying the equivalent of 18,000 twenty-foot containers—the Triple-E. That’s for economy of scale, energy efficiency and environmentally improved.
The latter item is a major marketing point, especially for shippers with sustainability and environmental commitments in mind for their products and supply chains. Maersk contends that the ships will bring significant environmental improvements in terms of reduced emissions to the shipping table; a more is less approach. The company claims the vessels will produce “the lowest possible amount of CO2 emissions — an astonishing 50 percent less CO2 per container moved than the industry average on the Asia–Europe trade.”
“International trade will continue to play a key role in the development of the global economy, but, for the health of the planet, we must continue to reduce our CO2 emissions,” says Maersk Line CEO Eivind Kolding. Emission reductions are “not only a top priority for us, but also for our customers, who depend on us in their supply chain, and also for a growing number of consumers who base their purchasing decisions on this type of information,” he continues.
Ocean shipping is responsible for 3-4 percent of global emissions, largely because it burns cheap but highly polluting bunker fuel. Actually, that percentage is probably increasing, according to a recent Guardian news report that cites a UN finding that annual emissions from the world's merchant fleet have reached 1.12 billion tons of CO2, or nearly 4.5 percent of all global GHG emissions. The UN report suggests that shipping emissions will become one of the largest single sources of man-made CO2 after cars, housing, agriculture and industry. By comparison, the aviation industry is responsible for about 650 million tons of CO2 emissions a year.
South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. will deliver the first 10 Maersk ships starting in 2013 and continuing through 2015. The ships will save energy and reduce emissions (perhaps) as their twin engines are designed to run slower, and that’s mainly because they are smaller. Also, waste heat will be recovered and instead of using nearly 200 tons of fuel a day, the new ships should be able to run on around 100 tons, according to the company.
The new mega-ships’ cargo capacity of 18,000 containers will be 16 percent more than that of the Emma Maersk, currently the largest container vessel in operation and roughly twice the capacity of other large vessels plying the sea-lanes.
Maersk's boasts about “astonishing” emission reductions (by spreading the pollution footprint among more containers per ship while also steaming at much slower speeds) have the aroma of smoke and mirrors about them.
For one thing it assumes the giant ships will be fully loaded on every round-trip sailing, something that rarely happens, and that shippers are OK with waiting longer for their ship to come in and to get their product on the shelf. Then there's the huge number of trucks (and more pollution) both in-port and off-port required to move the containers from ship to destination.
There are other points to ponder about the deal. Only three ports in Europe, one port in Egypt and four ports in Asia can handle these mega-ships. They are designed solely for the China-Europe trade route – meaning they must use the Suez Canal.
Spending nearly $6 billion for mega-ships that can only use a few ports and that must traverse one of the most volatile regions on the planet is a mega-throw of the dice.