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Container ships: Green shipping – how can shipping become more sustainable?
9 min read

Green shipping: The shipping industry is setting course for sustainability

Climate neutral by 2050 – that is the goal being targeted by shipping companies worldwide. In the world of shipping, that is little more than the blink of an eye. How can such a turnaround be achieved in so little time without the whole plan foundering? There are plenty of ideas and concepts – discover more about the current situation and the journey ahead.

Climate neutral by 2050 – that is the goal being targeted by shipping companies worldwide. In the world of shipping, that is little more than the blink of an eye. How can such a turnaround be achieved in so little time without the whole plan foundering? There are plenty of ideas and concepts – discover more about the current situation and the journey ahead.

The shipping industry is responsible for a considerable amount of ballast

More than 90,000 cargo and passenger vessels currently sail on the rivers and oceans of the world. Approximately 90 % of world trade takes place by sea. Shipping alone therefore emits around one billion tonnes of CO2 annually, which is equivalent to 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions! If shipping were a country, it would rank sixth among the world's largest CO2 emitters. Shipping accounts for 15 % of global nitrogen oxide emissions and 13 % of sulphur dioxide. That is not including the other environmental problems to which shipping contributes, such as oil pollution, ship waste and waste water as well as seawater pollution. These are other serious problems that will need to be addressed more effectively in the coming years.

The fact is that the shipping industry is NOT a state, which means that nationally prescribed environmental protection measures are difficult to implement or enforce. Due to its global orientation, shipping is primarily regulated by the "International Maritime Organization" (IMO[PM1] ), a specialised agency of the United Nations with 175 Member States. It is easy to imagine how difficult it is within an organisation of this size to agree on stricter regulations in the interests of environmental and climate protection and impose sanctions in the event of non-compliance.

In addition, shipping companies are free to choose the flag under which they operate their ships, meaning that all ships are subject to the (environmental) rules of that country. Unfortunately, not all states implement or enforce international maritime and shipping law rigorously enough. Under Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), these ships cannot be denied peaceful passage through the territorial seas of other states. 

All in all, this situation does not seem particularly encouraging. So does that make sustainable, climate-friendly shipping an impossible dream? The good news is that the problems have been identified and a growing number of shipping companies worldwide as well as manufacturers of marine engines and ships are working on solutions that are often grouped under the generic term 'green shipping'. 

A container ship clearly emitting polluted exhaust gases into the air

Ships usually still burn heavy fuel oil on the high seas – with clearly visible soot generation.

Land ahoy: The world shipowners' association has set itself the target of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

International shipping is aware of its responsibilities and is looking to significantly tighten its climate targets. Previously, the IMO was aiming to halve CO2 emissions by 2050. Now, however, a much more ambitious plan is on the table: Spurred on by German shipowners, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has submitted to the IMO the proposal to achieve complete climate neutrality by 2050.

Critics may now object: "Only by 2050? That's more than 25 years away!" Consider, however, the typical life cycle of a container ship, which can have a service life of around 20 years, even up to 40 years in some cases. The large shipping companies often have quite young fleets, but after a vessel is sold, it can often be used second, third or fourth hand by other shipping companies before it is finally scrapped. What this means, in essence, is that only climate-neutral ships should be launched from now on. But this idea is not realistic on many levels.

The majority of ocean-going, coastal and inland waterway vessels today have classic combustion engines, which run on fossil fuels such as heavy fuel oil or marine diesel. The idea of abolishing combustion engines overnight is simply not an option for shipping. Due to the size, weight and cost, battery-powered or fuel cell-based electric drives can currently only be used for coastal ferry traffic; not for overseas vessels! But if electric drives are out of the question, how are fossil fuels to be replaced in a climate-neutral manner?

A focus on climate-neutral energy sources

There are very different options and concepts for making the propulsion systems in shipping more environmentally friendly and climate neutral:

  • The use of filter systems

Existing engines can be retrofitted with filter systems (scrubbers for instance). Whilst this does reduce pollutant emissions into the atmosphere, it simply shifts the problem as it results in contaminated waste water and/or filters that must be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner.

  • Slow steaming

Sailing at lower speeds has been common practice for some time. This reduces fuel consumption, which reduces costs in times of high fuel prices and, at the same time, reduces emissions. This is a good approach, but is not the solution.

  • Using less 'dirty' fuels

The impact of switching from heavy fuel oil to low-sulphur marine diesel or, even better, to liquefied natural gas (LNG) is considerable. The disadvantage is that it still involves the burning of fossil fuels, and generates CO2 emissions accordingly.

  • New forms of propulsion

The shipping company Scandlines is equipping ferries with state-of-the-art rotor sails; another shipping company is using battery modules on inland vessels; a solar catamaran for 300 guests will sail on Lake Constance from summer 2022 while Finnlines vessels are to employ an innovative new air lubrication system to create bubble layers for reduced friction and hydrodynamic resistance. These are just a few of the ideas and concepts for saving fossil fuels. It is, however, unclear which of these innovations, if any, could represent a realistic long-term solution for cargo shipping. 

  • New alternative fuels

According to the experts, the future lies in the use of novel, climate-neutral fuels. Various energy sources are considered potential successors to fossil fuels, including synthetic natural gas, hydrogen, 'green' methanol or even ammonia. However, these substances each have their own advantages and disadvantages and require dedicated propulsion engines for the individual fuel. To date, none of the options has succeeded in asserting itself significantly over the others. All are at different stages of research and testing. At the present time, therefore, uncertainty reigns over which concept will prevail.

New fuels require a great deal of effort

And this is precisely what makes things so difficult for the shipping companies at the moment. Because even if a solution were soon to emerge as the most efficient and practical, a mammoth task still awaits all involved parties. Currently, all ports worldwide are designed for refuelling with heavy fuel oil or marine diesel. What would be required, therefore, would be the construction of another complete tank infrastructure in parallel to the existing one. In order for new ships with climate-friendly engines to remain flexible, there would need to be sufficient availability of the new fuel everywhere. This would mean that transport capacities, storage facilities, refuelling facilities and port logistics would have to be created from scratch in a multitude of ports worldwide – a gargantuan challenge for port operators!

Computer-generated image of a hydrogen-powered cargo ship

Still a glimpse into the future sadly: Cargo ship with clean hydrogen propulsion

Whatever course the journey takes, KSB is ready

In pumps, valves, automation solutions and accompanying services, KSB is at home across the seven seas, and has been for decades! We perfectly understand the special requirements of the shipping industry: Absolute safety and maximum availability over the entire service life, even under the harshest conditions. Extreme weather conditions, seawater, aggressive, corrosive or explosive fluids: KSB offers the most suitable product for every environment and fluid.

We also see that shipping is changing and are monitoring technical developments in this industry very closely. Our advantage as a single-source supplier is that we are also well versed in chemical production processes and have the necessary detailed knowledge of the production, transport and storage of new alternative fuels and alternative energy sources. We are the partner of choice for ship and engine builders as well as equipment and component suppliers. Shipping companies, shipyards and engineers benefit from our products' extensive application options and high quality as well as from our in-depth expertise and excellent service. Do you have any questions on this topic or about our products? We look forward to hearing from you! Contact us now.

Used products



Vertical in-line centrifugal pump with closed impeller and mechanical seal. ILNS fitted with an auxiliary vacuum pump, ILNE with ejector. Back pull-out design allows the impeller to be dismantled without removing the piping and the motor. ATEX-compliant version available.



Horizontal or vertical seal-less volute casing pump in close-coupled design, with magnetic drive, to DIN EN ISO 2858 / ISO 5199, with radial impeller, single-entry, single-stage. ATEX-compliant version available.

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