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

Logistics in the News

State of Logistics 2016: Pursue mutual benefit
U.S. Department of State adopts collaborative contracting in logistics
The 2016 3PL CEO Survey: Growth, but headwinds to come
FedEx set to roll out flight from Liege, Belgium to Memphis
ATA reports declines in February truck tonnage volumes
More Logistics News

Logistics Resource

The View from the New “Single Window”
The single window, officially known as the "International Trade Data System," operates via the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency's Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) platform, and serves as a single point of contact for all trade filings.
All Resources
By ·

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, Executive Editor
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
The View from the New “Single Window”
The single window, officially known as the "International Trade Data System," operates via the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency's Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) platform, and serves as a single point of contact for all trade filings.
Download Today!
From the March 2017 Issue
WMS vendors are stepping up to the plate and developing functionalities and solutions that meet the complex needs of today’s companies. Our top analysts take a peek into these developments and discuss the DC of the future and the software that will support it.
5 Supply Chain Trends Happening Now
2017 Warehouse/DC Equipment Survey: Investment up as service pressures rise
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly email newsletter!
Latest Webcast
2017 Trucking Regulations & Infrastructure Update
In this session our panel brings shippers up to date on the state of transportation regulations. Discussion will revolve around regulatory reform, aspects of the federal highway bill and what the transportation landscape looks like in the early days of the Trump administration.
Register Today!
EDITORS' PICKS
LM Exclusive: Major Modes Join E-commerce Mix
While last mile carriers receive much of the attention, the traditional modal heavyweights are in...
ASEAN Logistics: Building Collectively
While most of the world withdraws inward, Southeast Asia is practicing effective cooperation between...

2017 Rate Outlook: Will the pieces fall into place?
Trade and transport analysts see a turnaround in last year’s negative market outlook, but as...
Logistics Management’s Top Logistics News Stories 2016
From mergers and acquisitions to regulation changes, Logistics Management has compiled the most...