Clearing the Air: What Ports Can Do

There’s plenty to cause concern about the transportation industry’s ongoing environmental impact, with freight traffic to and from the U.S. set to increase by at least a third during the next 10 years.

For now, most of the emphasis is being placed — quite rightly — on the various contributions of different transportation modes to fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. As freight volumes grow, however, it’s emissions from ports that we need to worry about, too.

Emissions that come from port operations already threaten the health and air quality of millions of Americans who work at or live near these hubs. Without smart, strategic action, the situation will get worse quickly. Right now, there is growing concern at local, state and national government levels that imminent, tighter legislative controls are on a collision course with increased port traffic. A pending case before the Supreme Court regarding implementation of the clean-trucks program at the Port of Los Angeles is just one example illustrating the high stakes of environmental regulation at ports.

Most busy port managers have plenty on their plates without worrying about sustainability and emissions controls, and there’s still a feeling that these issues are vague and difficult to address in a practical fashion. This is a misconception, however, and one likely to lead to trouble. There are simple, commonsense steps involved in getting your arms around these challenges. The Environmental Defense Fund has assisted in development of a range of environmental and sustainability initiatives at U.S. ports. Drawing from that experience, we have devised a five-point action plan for port managers to build a robust port sustainability program:

— Hire a sustainability manager. Sustainability isn’t just for the largest ports with deeper pockets. Sustainability can help smaller ports increase their efficiency of operations and can save money.  Sustainability managers come with a diverse set of backgrounds and skills, but some of the most successful have experience with maritime operations and environmental science, as well as a business background. The investment in a good sustainability manager will be dwarfed by the return in savings.

— Complete an emissions inventory to understand the largest opportunities for improvement in air pollution. One of the best tools available to assist ports in developing sustainability plans is an emissions inventory. Emissions inventories provide a concrete assessment of the emissions associated with all sectors of port operations, including trucks, ships, rail, cargo-handling equipment and harbor craft. Once the port has a grasp on emissions associated with specific activities, sustainability plans can be tailored for effectiveness. Emissions inventories can help in monitoring port performance over time and evaluating the effectiveness of sustainability programs.

— Develop a robust plan with specific goals to improve sustainability. Sustainability doesn’t happen by itself; it needs to be nurtured. The best sustainability plans are part of the core mission of the port authority. Having support and buy-in from executive-level leadership, including port commissioners, is key to the success of any initiative at ports. In addition, sustainability plans need to have specific goals and expected outcomes, with appropriate timelines and built-in accountability.

— Work in partnership with your customers and local stakeholders to help make sustainability real. Working with port customers as well as the port community gets you the biggest bang for the buck. Collaborating with customers or local community groups on grant applications, for instance, adds transparency to sustainability efforts, makes the application more attractive, and can be a win-win proposition for the region.

— Lobby for local and federal funding, including the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, to support sustainability and environmental improvement projects. In the current economic situation, financing initial capital investments in sustainability, even when the projects offer a positive net benefit in the future, can be a challenge. Over the last five years, the Environmental Protection Agency has awarded funding to almost 60,000 pieces of clean diesel technology through the National Clean Diesel Campaign. These technologies include emissions and idle control devices, aerodynamic equipment, engine and vehicle replacements, and alternative fuel options. By providing resources to increase deployment of newer, cleaner engines, these projects have helped to improve air quality in local regions faster than through normal attrition.

Overall, it’s important to understand that ports are in a unique position, with powerful potential to support sustainability initiatives across a diverse array of platforms. Ports can catalyze partnerships and facilitate development of initiatives across a broad spectrum of stakeholders. We face unstoppable changes in traffic patterns and freight volumes pressing hard against an increasing legislative and social move toward cleaner, more efficient freight operations nationwide and around the globe. In this climate, implementing a robust, successful sustainability program isn’t an option; it’s a necessity.  

Elena Craft is a health scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, Texas. Contact her at


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