Key Maritime Sustainability Trends in 2021

Saying that the global Covid-19 pandemic transformed our lives forever would be an understatement. Not only has it spurred the reign of digitization, but closer home to shipping, it has made companies across the world re-examine their supply chain management, logistics, and operational efficiency.

The entire shipping industry is now focusing on creating better, more sustainable shipping solutions, as evinced by the IMO’s 2020 resolution – sustainable shipping for a sustainable planet.

It is interesting to speculate about the trends that will dominate this shift towards a more renewable tomorrow. Here’s our take.

1. Focus on Decarbonization


Reduction of carbon emissions has been a long-term goal of the shipping industry, over the past decade. However, considering the rampant impact of climate change on global weather patterns we can expect to see a stronger push towards controlling carbon emissions in shipping.

As an industry, shipping is subject to the whims of nature. Natural disasters, storms, and cyclones can disrupt shipping operations for days at a time. In addition, as ships transport nearly 90% of the world trade and contribute to 3% of the total carbon emissions of the world, it is high time for ocean freight to adopt more carbon-free measures. 

The Marine Environment Protection Committee has drafted short-term amendments that aim to curb carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. If accepted, ships worldwide will be expected to modify their operations to comply with these global standards.

2. Large-scale Adoption of Smart Technology

smart technology

Technology is central to the development of any industry and shipping is no exception. Over the past 10 years, the shipping industry has come a long way in terms of making processes Digi-savvy. The rapid spread of Covid-19 and all its variants is further fueling this  transformation, making large-scale adoption of smart technology common.

Hence, smart ports are implementing an autonomous and digital approach to shipping, which helps ships and operators relay information, assess priorities, reduce traffic, and make strategic decisions on the fly, without the tedious paperwork.

The pandemic has led to the digitization of documents and operations which has transformed logistics processes for the better. For instance, The Digital Container Shipping Association announced plans for achieving full electronic bill of lading adoption, on the belief that an electronic bill of lading would benefit all parties in container shipping. Ocean Network Express, the world’s sixth largest container line, recently became the latest shipping line to offer fully electronic bills of lading to their customers.

Considering that the impact of Covid-19 will last for at least another two years, this trend is only expected to evolve in 2021. 

3. Increased Use of Low-Sulphur Fuels

 Low-Sulphur Fuels

Sulfur emissions are one of the primary causes of maritime pollution and environmental degradation. IMO’s 2020 sulfur regulation went into effect last year, making it mandatory for ships to reduce sulfur emissions by 0.5%. Furthermore, the Emission Trading System of the EU will seek reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% by 2030.

In terms of shipping sustainability, the use of sulfur-based fuels is expected to decrease further, with companies looking for greener alternatives like very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

In addition, shipping operators are alternatively installing scrubbers to reduce sulfur emissions and meet IMO 2020 standards, in case fuel replacement is not an option. 

4. Setting up Shore-to-Ship Power

When docked at a port, ships have the option to either use self-generated power or connect to the port’s electricity grid, depending on the location. Interestingly, an assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that ship emissions can be reduced up to 98% if the ships connect to the shore’s grid, especially if it is powered by renewable sources of energy. 

With the ambitious emission control targets set by the IMO, 2021 can be the year when major world ports make a significant shift towards letting ships dock and connect to local electric supplies, to drive zero onsite emissions and import air quality of the port.

India is taking a step in this direction, by overhauling its ports policy for maritime trade. In an effort to increase port sustainability, the Ministry of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways has circulated a draft of the Indian Ports Bill 2020, which has provisions that will increase the safety, security, performance, and pollution control of Indian ports. 

5. Alignment with Sustainable Development Goals


“The shipping industry is set to adopt sustainable development goals from 2021, making the 20s a decade of action and delivery, not only for the shipping industry but for the planet as a whole.”

-IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim

Every aspect of the IMO’s work connects to the 16 individual SDGs, marking a huge step forward for maritime sustainability. 

This alignment with SDGs includes:

  • providing a dependable and economic means of transport which will improve commerce and further prosperity, 
  • promoting sustainable fishing across coastal areas, improving air quality for people living in port cities, 
  • ensuring quality education and training for members of the maritime community, 
  • effective waste-disposal, 
  • development of sustainable infrastructure
  • increase in port and coastal safety through risk management and global norms for security and efficiency of ports
  • focus on carbon capture underwater topography and ocean fertilization to reduce the impact of climate change
  • sustainable use of marine resources to halt land degradation, combat desertification, and reduce the loss of biodiversity
  • increasing access to reliable, sustainable energy, and 
  • provision of equal growth opportunities without racial or gender biases

6. Embracing Diversity

Although the maritime industry has been a primarily male-dominated field, the introduction of sustainable goals is expected to offer more opportunities for women and people from ethnic minorities. Thus, the maritime community is cultivating an open-minded approach, with less emphasis on gender and more on qualification, capability, and performance.

To further a more inclusive industry and promote gender diversity in the maritime sector, Maritime SheEO and TOOL organized a virtual conference on the theme ‘Diversity and Sustainability: The Business Case’ and invited maritime speakers from across the world to discuss the progressive diversity scenario in the shipping industry. Additionally, the event also announced the launch of the Maritime SheEO Leadership Accelerator Programme, designed to provide training, mentoring, and networking opportunities for women in the maritime industry and equip them with the skills required to become confident decision makers who drive change. 

This diversification of personnel will increase in the next few years, and create better and equal opportunities in the industry. 

7. Building a Circular Economy

They say, what goes around, comes around. Nothing could be truer for the maritime industry, which has aimed towards creating a circular economy, based on the principles of ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’, for years. 

However, it needs to go a step further and adopt the 12 principles of building a circular economy, as mentioned by Ichin Cheng in ‘Designing for the Circular Economy’.

These 12 steps include reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, refurbish, re-purpose, re-design in an eco-friendly manner, re-manufacture, the research and development of new materials, re-skilling, reverse supply chain management, and re-envisioning of the green revolution.

Creating a Sustainable Tomorrow for Shipping

While maritime sustainability has always been on the cards, 2021 will mark the shipping industry’s serious foray into curbing emissions and adopting sustainable development measures. Hence, the trends mentioned above are some of the ways in which the maritime community is effecting an environmental, social, and economic change at the grass-root level, transforming everyday life for the seafarers.

Sustainable shipping is now the ultimate goal and we can see that all policy and regulation changes, diversification, digitization, and emission control measures are moving towards that unified objective.

What is your opinion about the maritime sustainability trends that will dominate 2021? Drop a comment to let us know!

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