Smart Cargo Ships Key Link to Sustainable Supply Chains

Intelligent vessel design and data-driven operations can help the shipping industry reduce its environmental impact.

By Gary Wollenhaupt

By Gary Wollenhaupt January 12, 2023

Every year, approximately 90,000 marine vessels carry over 90% of world trade across Earth’s five oceans. That makes the ocean shipping industry a vital link in global supply chains that connect people who make goods in one part of the world to consumers who eventually buy them in another part of the world.

Unfortunately, it also makes the ocean shipping industry a major polluter. In fact, if the global shipping industry were a country, it would rank among the top 10 carbon emitters in the world, according to the ocean-saving nonprofit Oceana.

Because the transportation sector’s shipping carbon footprint is so large, the United Nations’ shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships by 70% by 2050, compared to 2008 levels. Environmental groups want to go even further. Instead of reducing shipping’s carbon footprint by 2050, they want to eliminate it entirely by achieving a net-zero shipping industry.

But is it possible to reduce emissions from vessels that may be up to 400 meters long, with engines bigger than a house?


Autonomous Ships Chart Future Supply Chains

Shippers are as eager for solutions as environmentalists. 

“Shippers want to know their supply chain carbon footprint on a per-container, per-mile basis and manage their impact,” said Lee Kindberg, head of environment and sustainability in North America for Maersk, one of the largest shipping line operators in the world.

Cloud computing is key. While it already is improving the environmental impact of supply chains through innovations like autonomous electric freight trucks and drone deliveries, it can make an equally big splash—literally—in global shipping.

Greener Ships

Perhaps the most obvious way to achieve net-zero shipping is to make ships themselves more sustainable. Shipping operators are therefore investing in research and new vessels for the future—including self-driving ships and electric vessels that rely on edge computing and cloud-based artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, the search is on for alternatives to the low-grade bunker or diesel fuel that powers most vessels today. Shipping companies have already adopted low-sulfur bunker fuel for engines able to use it, and some current engines get by with scrubbers that extract harmful gases from the exhaust before it enters the atmosphere.


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For its part, Maersk has pledged to build 19 container ships powered by methanol that will be produced from sustainable sources. To ensure a supply of the new fuel, the company has signed sourcing agreements with suppliers in Spain and Egypt.

“Our customers are looking to us to decarbonize their supply chains, and these … vessels able to operate on green methanol will further accelerate the efforts to offer our customers climate-neutral transport,” Henriette Hallberg Thygesen, CEO of fleet and strategic brands at Maersk, said in a statement.

Other shipping companies have decided to use methane gas and biogas from renewable sources, and combination solar and sail vessels—where solar panels power electric motors with an assist from the wind—already are in the planning stages.

Researchers looking for new fuels are using cloud-based tools to power their efforts. At Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), for example, scientists say they have developed a “data-driven AI framework to design liquid fuels … to improve efficiency and lower carbon emissions.”

“The key bottleneck [in designing and evaluating new fuels] is screening complex mixtures containing hundreds of components to predict synergistic and antagonistic effects of species on the resultant mixture properties,” KAUST researcher Nursulu Kuzhagaliyeva told Innovation News Network in an interview. 

“This problem was a good fit for deep learning that allows capturing nonlinear interactions between species.”

Empowering Consumers

Another way the cloud can enable sustainable shipping is with information. Maersk, for example, offers its shippers an interactive emissions dashboard that tracks a business’s carbon footprint across the entire value chain and trade channels. It consolidates the emissions data across all carriers and transportation modes in a single view.

That kind of consolidated view will be indispensable in the wake of two new ratings that the IMO is requiring of shippers starting in 2023: the Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI) and the Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII). The former indicates a ship’s energy efficiency compared to a baseline while the latter links a ship’s emissions to the amount of cargo carried over distance traveled.


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“Based on a ship's CII, its carbon intensity will be rated A, B, C, D or E (where A is the best). The rating indicates a major superior, minor superior, moderate, minor inferior, or inferior performance level,” the IMO explains on its website. “A ship rated D for three consecutive years, or E for one year, will have to submit a corrective action plan to show how the required index of C or above will be achieved.”

Like the miles-per-gallon rating on a car, the goal is to give shipping customers a clear measure by which to compare operators based on their sustainability. By measuring the total environmental impact of cargo movements on individual ships, shippers can choose greener vessels to carry their cargo, reducing their own environmental impact within the supply chain.

Among the things ships can do to improve their rating are cleaning their hull to reduce drag, installing low-energy light bulbs and installing solar/wind auxiliary power for accommodation services.

Ships also can deploy sophisticated AI models, which can make accurate emissions calculations and predictions based on actual data rather than averages or projections, according to Ami Daniel, co-founder and CEO of maritime AI company Windward, and Lord John Browne, Windward’s chairman.

“To enable companies to reduce their carbon footprint, we need detailed emissions accounting per voyage by operational activity. This data could be used not only by shipping companies, but also by banks, insurers, cargo owners, freight forwarders and everyone down to the end consumer,” Daniel and Browne wrote in an article for the World Economic Forum. “Being able to access reliable data about the carbon emissions on shipping could drive real change: If each one of us knew the carbon impact of everything we bought, from our clothes, to our car, to the food we eat, we could use that to inform our choices. Stock values, press, brand reputation and bottom-line revenues will all be susceptible to this change.”

Smarter Sailing

Ships that want to improve their carbon intensity rating can also do so by optimizing their speeds and routes traveled.

Cloud-based route optimization systems combine weather and ocean data with vessel emissions and port congestion updates to reduce idling time in fragile coastal areas. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 vessels were anchored off the west coast of the United States, waiting for a berth at port. As it idled, each vessel spewed tons of carbon into the sky. Even on an average day, at least one ship is waiting for a berth while one is in port.


A Compelling Case for the Cognitive Supply Chain

Using predictive analytics based on historical use patterns, crew members can fine-tune operations to reduce waiting times at ports. For example, ship captains may be asked to slow down to 18 knots from 22 knots en route to port so the ship spends less time idling when it arrives. The slower speed also reduces emissions. In fact, carefully managed sailing can reduce the environmental impact of port operations by up to 80%.

“There’s constant communication with vessels, terminals and marine operations to optimize everything, so the vessels don’t speed up to wait,” said Maersk’s Kindberg.

When vessels operate efficiently, it’s not just the environment that benefits. Equally, it’s the economy, which sinks when global supply chains are broken and soars when they’re whole. Net-zero shipping is therefore a win-win-win for companies, consumers and the climate.

Gary Wollenhaupt is a supply chain writer and an award-winning editor and photographer. During his career, he worked for the first container shipping line and was seasick on his first and only voyage. Find him at or @gary_writes.

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