Will Panama Canal expansion make shipping greener?

Studying the relationship between climate change and the ocean cargo shipping sector immediately uncovers a series of apparent contradictions

By Patrick Burnson · May 6, 2013

On paper, it would seem that a shorter ocean transit route would have a positive impact on the environment. But several scientists contend that the shift of some freight from the U.S. West Coast to the East Coast will represent no more than “a push,” when it comes to cleaning the air and addressing climate change.

Indeed, studying the relationship between climate change and the ocean cargo shipping sector immediately uncovers a series of apparent contradictions, says Elena Craft, a prominent health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Of all the modes of transport, containerized shipping uses the most unrefined fossil fuels, yet is the least CO2‐intensive way to move goods around the planet,” she says.

In a recent interview, Craft notes that containerized shipping has a successful legacy of propulsion using renewable sources yet remains wedded to fossil fuels in the modern age. 

It contributes around 3% of global CO2 emissions while, historically, its contribution to climate change has been a cooling effect. And, despite a strong association with “national pride and identity,” it remains omitted from national efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions in nations where mitigation is high on the agenda.

It is against this backdrop that Craft has contributed her insights to a special issue of Carbon Management Journal examining “Panama Canal Expansion: Emission Changes from Possible U.S. West Coast Modal Shift.”

The expansion of the Panama Canal presents many opportunities for the intermodal container shipping industry, she says. Larger vessels will be able to transit the canal and take advantage of economies of scale in part to reduce CO2 and criteria pollutant emissions associated with goods movement.

But quantifying emissions changes associated with Panama Canal expansion depends on routing, size of ships, integration of short sea shipping, equipment profile and port of entry decisions (East Coast, Gulf Coast or West Coast). 

So while substitution of larger ships can reduce the CO2 footprint of cargoes carried by containership through an expanded Canal, diversion of current cargoes from modes known to be higher emitting per TEU-mile may not provide emissions benefits where waterborne route distances offset modal efficiencies. 

The conclusion posited by Carbon Management Journal:

“Using our assumption of future cargo volumes and a 10% diversion from the West Coast to the East Coast, the effects of Panama Canal expansion on CO2 emissions are negligible due to longer distances travelled.”

Researchers add that diversion distance offsets vessel size efficiency gains and reductions in inland transportation miles. Changes in emissions of air quality pollutants could be regionally significant in air-quality terms due to the localized nature of their environmental and health impacts.

But there’s an alternative that has yet to be properly explored say Environmental Defense Fund experts – short sea shipping.

“Short sea shipping is one way to possibly mitigate some emissions increases in regions with higher container traffic volumes,” says Craft, “revealing the importance of system-wide and intermodal consideration to improve freight transport from origin to destination, not just from port to port.”


About the Author

Patrick Burnson
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

Subscribe to Logistics Management Magazine!

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Get timely insider information that you can use to better manage your entire logistics operation.
Start your FREE subscription today!

Article Topics

Container · Green · Ocean Cargo · All Topics
Latest Whitepaper
Reduce Order Processing Costs by 80%
Sales order automation software will seamlessly transform inbound emailed and printed purchase orders into electronic sales orders that can be automatically processed into your ERP system with 100% accuracy.
Download Today!
From the June 2016 Issue
In the wildly unstable ocean cargo carrier arena, three major consortia are fighting for market share, with some players simply hanging on for survival. Meanwhile, shippers may expect deployment shifts as a consequence of the Panama Canal expansion.
WMS Update: What do we need to run a WMS?
Supply Chain Software Convergence: Synchronization Realized
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly email newsletter!
Latest Webcast
Optimizing Global Transportation: How NVOCCs Can Use Technology to Operate More Profitably
Global transportation isn't getting any easier to manage, especially for non-vessel operating common carriers (NVOCCs). Faced with uncertainties like surcharges—but needing to remain competitive when bidding against other providers—NVOCCs need the right mix of historical data, data intelligence, and technology support to make quick and effective decisions. During this webcast you'll learn how Bolloré Transport & Logistics was able to streamline its global logistics and automate contract management.
Register Today!
EDITORS' PICKS
Details Key to Cross-border Ease
Ever-changing regulations are making it risky for U.S. companies engaged in cross-border trade...
Digital Reality Check
Just how close are we to the ideal digital supply network? Not as close as we might like to think....

Top 25 ports: West Coast continues to dominate
The Panama Canal expansion is set for late June and may soon be attracting more inbound vessel calls...
Port of Oakland launches smart phone apps for harbor truckers
Innovation uses Bluetooth, GPS to measure how long drivers wait for cargo