climate change sustainability transport

Mapping global shipping

At seven o’clock on the 8th of June, 2012, this is where the world’s ships were:


That’s an image from Kiln‘s fascinating ShipMap, which shows the movements of the global merchant fleet through 2012. It’s beautifully visualised, and gives a real sense of movement and flow. Up at the top though, it also shows the CO2 emitted as all those container ships and tankers go about their business.

That may not be as much CO2 as you think. Shipping only accounts for 3% of global emissions, and as an international issue that doesn’t fall within anyone’s jurisdiction, it was left out of the Paris agreement. But that 3% is still significant, because it’s growing. International shipping has already grown by 400% in the last 45 years, and it is forecast to grow by 250% by 2050. At that point it will account for 14% of global emissions.

Except that, as we’ve seen before with meat and with construction materials, what looks like a carbon sideshow gets more serious when you’re working with a gradually shrinking carbon budget. Since we have to reduce emissions by 80%, shipping would be enough to tip us over 2 degrees of warming single-handedly.

The industry is aware of this, and is working on ways to lower emissions. Possible actions include running ships in port off local amenities rather than keeping the engines running, hybrid power that uses sails or kites, or heat recovery systems. An international carbon levy on shipping would help. Modern ships are already much more efficient, and there is potential for LPG or even nuclear powered vessels in future.

The industry has been working to reduce CO2 by 20% by 2020, but at that rate of change, improvements in efficiency will be lagging behind growth. Unless we invent the teleporter very soon, we’re going to have no choice but to ship less stuff across the world.


  1. congrats on the award jereny. most of that shipped around the world is garbage and or purchased from afar only because of subsudies so no great loss if shipping is reduced dramatically..

  2. The EU’s contribution to the problem was insist on the use of clean fuel from EU ports. The result was that DFDS stopped running the Harwich-Esbjerg route, which probably meant an extra planeload or two a day flying between the UK and Scandinavia as there is no longer a viable surface route.

    1. Yes, that was a blow and I’ve got friends in Scandinavia who feel the loss of that route. The bigger factor in their decline is the rise of the budget airlines though. Ferry passenger numbers peaked in the mid-90s, and the EU clean fuels rule was the nail in the coffin for those already struggling.

Leave a Reply to henry1941 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: