Ports, shipping and trade are essential to the UK economy.
As an island nation, we have developed a large number of ports around our coast. These are diverse in terms of size and type of cargo handled. In 2019, an estimated total of 95,600 cargo vessels arrived at the UK’s major ports; around 95% of all import and export tonnage entering and leaving this country is transported by sea.
Are we in deep water?
My research looks at ports within the supply chain and port development within the maritime sector. Interest has grown recently in the social and environmental impact of port operations; research has explored air and aquaculture pollution through marine waste and plastics. I am interested in both the environmental and social impact of port operations.
Ports are strategic assets; we need to invest in and manage them as such.
Shortages resulting from the recent incident when the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal have exposed our reliance on sea trade and the fragility of the system. More work needs to be done to explore the risks to the supply chain and maritime logistics so that we can identify ways to make them more resilient and more prepared for black swan events. Now, more than ever, we need to have backup plans in place.
Historically, there was always a huge focus on the economic impact (at a regional and national level) of new ports when they were being designed and built. Social impact and corporate social responsibility have now crept up the agenda with increased focus on the quality of life for those living near a port.
The transportation of goods and cargo necessitates increasing numbers of large haulage vehicles operating to and from the port, causing road congestion, resulting in wear and tear to the infrastructure and also increasing air pollution. There has been more research investigating renewable energy use and hydrogen-powered renewables. The focus is no longer on prospective economic benefits but also on the image of the port in its locality.
Running a tight ship
New research methods and tools are being explored with a particular focus on using data and artificial intelligence (AI) more comprehensively and strategically to support data-driven decision making. Ports need to be efficient and reliable in order to process goods quickly; interrogating data can give us an insight into the extent of this efficiency but the data has to be reliable, accessible and accurate. Incorrect information is no good.
Ports collect huge amounts of data, such as financial and environmental information as well as data on the throughput of goods and shipping.
Typically, most shipping business operations are kept very confidential. To keep a tab on costs, a vessel’s journey is tracked and recorded to capture information on its speed and fuel usage. The problem arising from this narrow focus is that a lot of other variables, such as the tide, currents, weather, wind direction and weight, can also impact on a vessel’s speed and progress. Focusing only on specific data can create an incomplete picture, leading to flawed analysis.
It is also important for data and information systems to be secure.
This cannot be overstated! We witnessed the impact of the ransomware cyber attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the United States in 2021. This resulted in the pipeline being shut down for several days causing fuel shortages at airports and at the pump in states such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Virginia.
Seeking sustainable solutions
When we investigate sustainability now, we explore the social and economic aspects, as well as the environmental ones. Achieving economic growth requires balancing these different needs. This poses challenges to the development of ports.
Future expansion and operations must be managed in a sustainable way and cope with limited or decreased space. Recognising this limitation, and the importance of operating in harmony with their hinterlands and surrounding cities, means that clean, green growth is an important economic driver.
Ports in countries like Korea are seeking to reduce the environmental impact of shipping and promote green port operations. In a change from the past, this work includes capturing the perspectives of not just port operators and workers, and the local communities, but also of the port’s customers too.
In most countries, ports are usually state owned. They can call on government subsidies when major infrastructure investment or upgrades are required. Governments tend to place a considerable emphasis on community engagement and dialogue, especially when ports are designed or expanded. Governments also see the national importance of ports as the main gateway to importing and exporting goods and their role in the economy.
Ports in the UK differ; they are usually privately owned and run for profit. Infrastructure investment often requires raising private capital. There can be less focus on community engagement and dialogue. While operations in ports like Plymouth, Falmouth and Southampton may be subject to different drivers, the UK, like other countries, is also looking very seriously at the environmental sustainability of its ports too.
At close quarters
There has been a lot of work exploring the impact of port operations on their surrounding environment. With the high level of transportation on roads around ports, air pollution tends to be higher and people living close by are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases. Work is underway to reduce the emissions from road and haulage transportation of goods from the ports inland.
Vessels have also been fitted with scrubbers or Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems (EGCS) to remove particulates and harmful components, such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides present in the exhaust gasses from marine engines. These scrubbing systems have been developed to ensure no damage is done to human life and the environment by toxic chemicals. Sulphur emissions to the atmosphere by sea-going vessels have been limited by new and updated international regulations too.
In the offing
There has been a lot of investment in automation. The Dutch have automated a number of ports; these can now run around the clock.
There is an ongoing debate about whether AI will replace human labour. I think both should co-exist. Using AI to complement the human element should support better decision making.
While automation has meant job losses, it has also led to a demand for skills such as maintenance engineers. Some ports have worked with education institutions in their local communities to ensure training is available. This ensures the next generation of the workforce will have the skills required to keep ports moving. It should also benefit the surrounding community too.