NO: DELENG / 2017 / 70663
official media partner of national maritime foundation
Dr. Patrick Verhoeven, Managing Director(International Association of Ports and Harbors): The future of ports and their role in achieving a sustainable future
By Sea and Coast | 18/03/2019

Looking ahead into the future  is, in many respects, a challenging task, given the rapid pace of evolution in our society. A complex mixture of geopolitical changes, commercial strategies, digitisation and automation, decarbonisation and professional development will shape the future of the port sector. To help ports preparing for that future, the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) established its World Ports Sustainability Program (WPSP) almost one year ago.

The Program is a platform for leadership and collaboration in such diverse areas as resilient infrastructure, energy transition, safety and security, community outreach and governance. With WPSP, we hope to the firmly establish the leadership of ports to deliver value to their communities in the years and decades to come.

Geopolitical changes and the rise of the Indian Subcontinent, Asia and Africa

Short-term, the impact of tariff barriers, WTO rule-breaking and political upheaval on world trade should not be underestimated in terms of their influence on the maritime industry in fifty years’ time. Nonetheless, continued exponential growth in intra-Asian trade and the trades between the Indian Subcontinent and Asia as well as the expansion of Chinese interests across continents with its ambitious Belt and Road vision will transform the geopolitical map by the second half of this century. Population growth in these regions will redraw principal seaborne trade lanes.

India is the second most populated country in the world with nearly a fifth of the world's population. In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF said India will grow 7.3% in 2019 and 7.4% in 2020 making its the world's fastest growing large economy.

Of 1.03 billion people living in Africa, 50% are under 20 years old and 40% live in cities. By 2020, 504 million Africans will form the continent’s workforce. China has already made its mark on the continent with its infrastructure investments in Africa’s ports and hinterland connections along with negotiating favourable trade accords resulting in a subsequent steep rise in trade between China and the African continent.

Rationalisation and consolidation

Nearly every segment of the global supply chain seeks to rationalise its operations through mergers or strategic alliances. This includes shipping lines, terminal operators and shippers. Port authorities remain the one notable exception to far-reaching cooperative arrangements, at least in relative terms, vis-à-vis other economic actors in the supply chain. 

More consolidation of port authorities will become inevitable in future, given the search for scale and scope economies, but also environmental and societal pressures. Land is a scarce good and competition for land use is therefore very high.

Examples of consolidation at the port authority level have started emerging. The Belgian ports of Ghent and Zeeland merged into the ‘NorthSea Port’ last year with other recent mergers including those of Hamina and Kotka in Finland, and the state-owned port companies of Ningbo and Zhoushan in China. A far-reaching cooperation agreement, as opposed to a merger, was reached between the ports of Seattle and Tacoma in the United States; it joined the two marine cargo operations. These are examples of bottom-up cooperation. In contrast, the recent reform of the Italian port system, which reduced the number of port authorities from 25 to 14, is a top-down case.

What currently complicates far-reaching forms of cooperation between port authorities are public ownership and related institutional impediments.  An important pre-condition for successful cooperation projects therefore lies in ensuring greater autonomy for port authorities.

Digitisation and automation

In 50 years, what the industry is currently describing as disruptive technologies and innovations will have become widely adopted and transform the way cargo and passenger traffic is handled by ports and their operators. Digitisation will most likely provide the impulse  towards efficiency improvements in terms of vessel arrival planning, time at berth, and loading/discharge productivity.

Automation will emerge, albeit less rapidly with the construction of highly sophisticated greenfield operations like the APM Terminals facility in Maasvlakte in Rotterdam. Capital expenditure and the challenges of fully automating brownfield sites located near port city centres will take much longer to change.

We may reach a point where automation and real time data handling between port players converge with the application of artificial intelligence and predictive forecasting using big data collated  from devices throughout the port, e.g., the ‘internet of things’. Speed of development will depend on the readiness of the port and logistics players themselves to share sensitive data, and the willingness of the port authorities and their governing bodies to encourage or even impose this openness .

Decarbonisation and the push towards the circular economy

The IMO’s 2020 sulphur cap and 2050 target for greenhouse gas reductions heralds the start of a structured approach towards capping harmful emissions that will ensure a very necessary adjustment to shipping status as the world’s 6th largest emitter, were it to be a country . With UNCTAD’s Review of Maritime Transport predicting compound annual growth of 3.2 % for seaborne trade between now and 2022, the industry will be forced to act.

After an initial surge of interest four years ago that then waned, the use of LNG as an alternative to heavy fuel oil for bunkering has now seen genuine advances with the first offshore and cargo vessels operating on LNG, with ultra large containerships and gas carriers now being ordered with duel fuel engines. The emergence of alternative, clean, non-carbon fuels like hydrogen and methanol will also power the ships of the future within 50 years. How fast that transformation takes place will depend on the willingness of owners and the preparedness of oil and gas majors, and innovators alike to invest in fuel cell technology and infrastructure in ports. It will also depend on container ship owners de-escalating the fight for size based on alleged economies of scale, where 80% of energy is consumed by 20% of largest cargo vessels.

We can also expect a growing number of initiatives in the field of the ‘circular economy’, whereby port authorities work together with their industrial clusters to generate their own energy and give new economic purpose to waste products; one example is waste water being used to cool industrial installations, which can be deployed for urban heating purposes.

Port professional development and attracting new young talent

Education and the development of young port professionals in the next 50 years will determine success in transforming the industry. The quality of accelerated skills development will have to aim at changing an age and gender demographic, which currently shows 89 and 91 percent of positions occupied by males at respective directorship and C-levels, and a skew towards seniority versus performance-based promotion and job rotation .