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Moving a tonne of cargo one kilometre by road produces 50 grammes of carbon dioxide, according to The Network for Transport and the Environment. To do the same thing by air produces 552 grammes of carbon dioxide – not surprising then that air cargo has come under fire from environmental campaigners.
But so far, container shipping, the moving force behind supply chain globalisation, has received scant attention from the environmentalists.

It is, after all, the least polluting way of moving goods – producing less than 13 grammes of carbon dioxide for each tonne of cargo moved one kilometre. So it is perhaps surprising that environmentalists now appear to be training their sights onto the industry.

The reason for this is simply the scale of container shipping. Figures from the Container Shipping Information Services show that the equivalent of about 153 million loaded TEUs were moved across the oceans in 2008 – seven per cent more than in 2007. And each of the 4,000 container ships in service is reckoned to travel some 300,000 kilometres a year.

The rise of globalisation has accelerated the growth in container shipping. Figures from Drewry Shipping Consultants suggest that between 1982 and 2005 containerised cargo trade grew three and a half times as fast as world GDP and 40 per cent faster than international trade overall.

So will environmental concerns throw this process into reverse? Certainly not in the short term – there is simply too much invested for rapid change. And of course, container ships will continue to get bigger  – and consequently more efficient and less polluting on a per unit basis.

But, of course, it might prompt companies to look again at globalisation strategies, and while there are obvious dangers, it might be that the result is more sophisticated and agile supply chains.

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