Digitalisation improves environmental footprint of shipping sector

29 January 2019
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In late 2018, the signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change adopted the guidelines for its implementation. International shipping can play a significant part in the transition towards a more sustainable economy. This involves more than just developing new vessel types with innovative propulsion technology. We can also achieve major wins by improving the existing fleet. Digitalisation plays a key role in these programmes.

Visual Port Call Efficiency

In late 2015, 195 countries participating in the Paris summit agreed to limit global warming to a maximum of 2°C – and preferably 1.5°C. This requires us to drastically reduce the volume of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Various industrial parties have proven willing to support national governments in transforming their environmental policies. For example, Shell recently announced that it would be linking the bonuses awarded to senior management to concrete climate objectives. Indeed, protecting our environment is not only an ethical issue; it is an economic necessity. There is no future for fossil-based industries. Investors need to take account of growing risks if climate change were to become unmanageable.

Rotterdam’s transition pathway

Rotterdam’s industrial complex, which generates some 30 megatons of CO2 emissions every year, will also be further aligned with the objects of the Paris Agreement. The Port of Rotterdam Authority is working together with its partners to realise a carbon-neutral landscape. The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy contributed to the transition plan ‘Towards a sustainable industrial cluster in Rotterdam-Moerdijk in three steps’. Alan Dirks, head of Environmental Management (Port Authority): “In the case of the industrial sector, we have adopted a number of routes, including biomass, wind power and storing CO2 in the sea bed. We can cut our carbon emissions relatively quickly through these approaches. In addition, we are encouraging sustainable shipping in the port of Rotterdam via various incentives. And we’re working together with other parties to promote cleaner shipping.”

Shipping emissions

The shipping sector is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions. Every year, vessels travelling from Rotterdam to another port or vice versa collectively release some 23 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. By 2050, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) intends to have reduced the shipping sector’s CO2 emissions by 50%. This will be achieved by various means, including cleaner fuels and new ship designs with innovative propulsion technology. In the short term, the sector can reduce its impact on air quality by switching to LNG and biofuels. While hydrogen technology looks promising, large-scale adoption is still a distant prospect. According to Dirks, the sector can score quite a few environmental wins by adapting its existing fleet. Digitalisation will play a crucial part in this strategy.

Insight into emissions

Policy Officer Rinske van der Meer is responsible for coordinating the development of models for the calculation, analysis and optimisation of greenhouse emissions within the Port Authority. A number of these models are linked to the Port Authority’s Pronto software application for port call optimisation. Which makes sense: sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand. Van der Meer: “Pronto focuses on reducing waiting times for ships calling on the port. The system provides real-time insight into the available berths and handling capacity. If an incoming ship has to wait until a berth becomes available, it can reduce its navigation speed – effectively shortening its waiting time in the port. This cuts the volume of emissions generated during the voyage and at the berth, and saves fuel to boot.” Dirks: “We offer insight into factors that used to be a ‘black box’. If they set the correct navigation speed, adapted to local berth and port capacity, vessels can plan a just-in-time itinerary and save on mooring dues. On top of that, it’s better for the environment – pretty good, right?”

Potential savings

IT developer Pim Verkerk: “Pronto’s CO2 module can calculate a vessel’s CO2 emissions based on its route, itinerary, the current terminal planning and its navigation speed. The application compares this to the vessel’s optimal speed under the existing conditions. This comparison can be used to determine potential savings per port call. At this point, we can already calculate a ship’s emissions based on the collected data, report them and indicate where there’s scope for further savings. In due time, we hope to offer more predictive information and possibly visualise savings in real time.” In some cases, a vessel actually doesn’t want to slow down to reach the port just in time. There are all sorts of reasons why a captain could opt to arrive earlier – for repairs, for example. What’s more: ships are often contractually obliged to travel from one port to the next as quickly as possible. That’s why the Port Authority consultants and IMO staff also take contractual aspects into account. Dirks: “The system will really take off when greater traffic efficiency starts appealing to every link in the chain. That kind of thing takes time, but we’re on the right track.”


Besides providing insight into carbon emissions, Pronto also shows the nitrogen load generated by sea-going vessels. Van der Meer: “This has a major impact – particularly along the coast. When ships are forced to stay at anchorage for too long, this directly affects the local ecology here in Rotterdam.” The Port Authority hopes that Pronto’s environmental tools will increase sector parties’ willingness to actively share information. Van der Meer: “The more insight the different links have in each other’s activities, the stronger the whole chain becomes. Port call optimisation involves a wide range of parties. Right now, we can’t take for granted that everyone will share their data – for a variety of reasons. But offering insight into fuel consumption and emissions could lower the threshold. Parties in the sector are well aware that this kind of insight is important and will only become more important in the years ahead.”