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In the drive to decarbonise shipping, much of the focus centres on reducing carbon emissions created onboard vessels, overlooking the critically important role of ports.

Ports are vital in the shipping chain but are also significant sources of pollution. Ports have a vested interest in the climate: physical infrastructure and port activities are vulnerable to climate change, especially sea level changes, changes in the level or pattern of shipping and extreme weather events, which all contribute to business interruption.

There are, therefore, strong commercial incentives for ports to implement policies that lessen their impact on the environment, both through meeting regulatory requirements and by voluntarily helping shipping to decarbonise. Additionally, ESG (environmental, social and governance) considerations feed into a commercial imperative for ports to provide a more environmentally friendly service.

For ports to remain relevant and be well placed to compete in a changing world they will need to make the most of the opportunities available to them, be those geographical, sectoral or practical, and these should not be limited to a focus on their own business interests but also those of their port users. Some of the opportunities for ports supporting their users to decarbonise include some substantial changes that will add cost to the supply chain. We outline the changes necessary starting with:

Green ports:
Co-operating with users to take a holistic approach towards zero-carbon economies, taking account of port physical infrastructure on land, reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at anchorage or berth, air quality improvements, water contamination reduction, enhancement of biodiversity and provision of vessel services which support vessel GHG reduction strategies.

Renewable energy/alternative fuels:
Coastal ports are well-suited for the production and deployment of renewable energy which can include the use of on or offshore wind energy, installation of solar panels on warehouses and port buildings, the use of tidal power, Carbon capture and storage technologies or the provision of low/zero carbon fuels to vessels calling at the port, such as hydrogen or advanced biofuels.

Transport – modal shift
Managing the way in which goods on land are transported to and from ports is a key consideration for decarbonisation. Moving to electrified rail or water-borne freight (where available), is a major means by which a port’s GHG emissions and wider air pollution can be reduced. While it is difficult to eliminate the use of road freight in its entirety, investment in rail infrastructure can have a significant impact on mitigating harmful air pollution.

Digital infrastructure:
Investment in the digital infrastructure to enable ‘just in time’ port calls by vessels is another way to facilitate sustainable economic growth and meet ESG objectives. GHG emissions and the discharge of other pollutants can be reduced by ensuring that vessel calls are as brief and efficient as possible, so reducing environmental impact.

Investment in technologies such as 5G within the port estate may support the use of autonomous electric vehicles and optimisation of transport, thereby improving efficiency and driving a reduction in the port’s carbon emissions.

Improved collection of data throughout the port is beneficial both from an operational perspective as well as in identifying and reducing the main sources of energy consumption.

Cold ironing/shore-to-ship power:
Commonly, ships at berth have no option but to use their auxiliary generators to provide power for crucial systems such as lighting, ventilation and fire prevention. It is partially for this reason that, in 2015, the European Commission advised: “If nothing is done, by 2020 shipping will be the biggest single emitter of air pollution in Europe, even surpassing the emissions from all land-based sources together.”

One way to improve vessel emissions in port is to provide access to shore power. Despite potentially expensive infrastructure upgrades and compatibility issues, the provision of shoreside power via a direct connection to the port’s electrical network can eliminate emissions (NOX, SOX, CO2 & other particulates), and also vibrations and noise.

Waste management:
Waste from vessels and produced ashore is commonly managed at ports. The handling of waste should be configured to allow for as much recycling and reuse of materials as possible.

Water contamination:
Ship-borne and shore-based water pollution is an important consideration and pollution takes many forms, including maritime debris, leakage of fuel and other chemical pollutants, discharge of sewage (from the port or vessels) and contaminated sediment from dredging. All of these sources should be minimised wherever possible, resulting in lower costs and regulatory overheads for both ship and port operators.

Finally, the impact of any expansion of the port upon biodiversity is a crucial consideration. The waterways upon which ports are situated are often important habitats for wildlife and showing that due care has been given to the impact of the port’s footprint upon local flora and fauna demonstrates the port’s ESG credentials and commitment to the wider environment.

As well as taking steps to reduce the destruction of wildlife habitat, consideration should also be given to the impact of both noise and light pollution. The established practice within the construction sector of demonstrating ‘net gains’ for biodiversity and the creation of new green spaces for wildlife could be employed.

To navigate a changing world continuous dialogue between ports and shipowners is essential, to ensure cooperation, compatibility and to minimise negative environmental impacts. In this way, cutting edge facilities and infrastructure can be developed to ensure best environmental practice as well as commercial sustainability.

In an increasingly consumer-led and environmentally aware society, the duty of all stakeholders to protect the environment has been brought into sharp focus and should be embraced from both the landward and the seaward side to ensure shipping and ports can continue to flourish and play their significant role within the supply chain.

Colin Lavelle, partner, and Rachel Hoyland, senior associate, of maritime law specialist Hill Dickinson, consider the role of ports in the shipping industry’s efforts to decarbonise

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