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

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. We regularly receive questions about it and we also ask ourselves the question: 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 the story of Summer Without Flying?

Theory and practice

The international NGO Transport & Environment recently published a report on the emissions and energy efficiency of sea-going vessels. On the basis of this report you can check per ship what the CO2 emissions are per ton (or per container) per kilometer. In this way you could theoretically also calculate your CO2 footprint as a passenger. But then you first have to determine how many tonnes or containers you put in  the space that one passenger occupies on the ship, and that seems practically impossible.

But doesn’t the ship sail anyway? 

International maritime freight transport is anything but climate-friendly currently. The total global CO2 emissions of the shipping sector are equivalent to those of international aviation. Just like Ryanair, the MSC shipping company is in the top 10 of the 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.

So no, it is not very useful to see a container ship as an alternative to an aircraft. In a globalized world, it would in any case only be a workable solution for a limited and wealthy group of people. The ship is sailing anyway: that is not entirely incorrect, but not very relevant and a bit one-sided. The ship is only sailing because we live in a system with the insatiable need to push more and more container cargo into the ocean.

Question the question

Additionally the question of how climate-friendly piggybacking on a container ship is perhaps the wrong question. We must not lose ourselves in weighing up the pros and cons of a system that is hardly scalable anyway – not now and not in the future. Instead, we better try to imagine a future that is possible.

Flying without the use of fossil fuels is currently not possible. Biofuels are not  as sustainable as 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.

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 container ship can be a unique, life-changing experience. Of course that can provide a valuable story – regardless of the story we are telling with Summer Without Flying, about train journeys to the Balkans, hitchhikers’ adventures en route to the South of France or discovery trips close to home.

If you really want to cross the ocean without impact, go with a sailboat. And when it comes to the impact of travel with a container ship, the question that really matters, is do we really need our fruit  from South Africa or why those web stores with Southeast Asian electronics or Sri Lankan textiles are so irresistible?