Traveling by cargo ship: climate-friendly alternative or not?
July 16, 2020

How useful is it to consider piggybacking on a ship as an alternative to an intercontinental flight? Is a journey with a container ship part of a summer without flying? The Belgian campaign Summer Without Flying inspires people to rediscover alternatives for air travel: travel differently, more consciously, slower and yes, sometimes closer to home. So, what about ferries and ships powered by crude oil?

Theory and practice

Taking a ship instead of a flight seems a good alternative – at first sight. Yet, international maritime freight transport is currently anything but climate-friendly. The total global CO2 emissions of the shipping sector are equivalent to those of international aviation (even though the non-CO2 warming factors are a lot higher in aviation). Just like Ryanair, the MSC shipping company one of the top 10 largest CO2 emitters in Europe. What applies to aviation, applies to the maritime transport sector: emissions go far beyond the limits of a viable planet – it is a system that is no longer sustainable.

The international NGO Transport & Environment recently published a report on the emissions and energy efficiency of sea-going vessels. Thanks to the report, you can check what the CO2 emissions are per ton (or per container) per kilometer are for different ships. This way, you could theoretically calculate your CO2 footprint as a passenger. But then you first have to determine how many tonnes or containers would fit in the space that a passenger occupies on a ship, and that seems practically impossible. It’s therefore hard to calculate the exact climate footprint of a journey on a cargo ship.

But doesn’t the ship depart anyway? 

Yes and no. Also cargo ships are only departing because we live in a system with the insatiable need to push more and more container ships into the ocean. So when it comes to the impact of travel with a container ship, the questions that really matters are: do we really need our fruit from South Africa? And why are those web stores with Southeast Asian electronics or Sri Lankan textiles so irresistible?

Imagine another future

Flying without the use of fossil fuels is currently not possible. Biofuels are not as sustainable as it is often claimed. The technology for flying on renewable energy is still in its infancy and a major breakthrough is not imminent. The story is somewhat different in shipping – on the basis of the current state of technology, the development of zero emission ships on a large scale seems feasible within a reasonable period of time. Those ships can then be either passenger or cargo ships – or a combination of the two. It does not prevent however the need to reduce the amount of miles traveled and cargo shipped to halt the ecological crisis.

The boat trip of your life

For weeks only sea, surrounded by nothing but an endless water surface, every day the same, no distractions from the internet or other sources, you can do much more than just stare.You have time to think, read and write, and your sense of time changes. An intercontinental voyage with a ship can be a unique, life-changing experience. So if you really want to cross the ocean without impact, why not go with a sailboat? Or think about the experiences you can make by taking train journeys to the Balkans, making hitchhikers’ adventures en route to the South of France or discovery trips close to home.