For centuries, the world's seas and oceans have been used to trade goods and services. Today, the shipping industry remains a crucial cog in the global economy.
The scale of the industry is significant. In 2016, global seaborne trade hit 10.3 billion tons, according to the 2017 edition of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development's Handbook of Statistics. Asia remained the world's largest trading region, with Asian seaports loading 4.1 billion tons of goods and unloading 6.3 billion tons in 2016.
In Europe, efforts are underway to revamp the shipping industry. The Motorways of the Sea (Mos) concept, for example, has the overarching aim of promoting "green, viable, attractive and efficient sea-based transport links integrated in the entire transport chain," according to the European Commission (EC).
The Innovation and Networks Executive Agency of the EC has described MoS as being the "maritime pillar of the Trans-European Transport Network." They are made up of everything from short-sea routes to ports, facilities and simplified administrative formalities.
Authorities are also looking to the skies for inspiration. "STM, sea traffic management, as an idea comes out of aviation, where they have one air traffic control system for the whole of Europe," Brian Simpson, the European Coordinator for Motorways of the Sea, told CNBC. Simpson added that STM represented "the start of a project to bring that kind of principle to the maritime aspect of our work."
Simpson added that an STM system improved safety. "It stops collisions. And when you've got a busy seaway like the English Channel… that's very important, and in bad weather it's vital."
The environmental impact of the shipping industry is not insignificant. In 2012, international shipping was responsible for an estimated 796 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — around 2.2 percent of total global CO2 emissions that year, according to the International Maritime Organization.
The issue of ships switching from diesel to other sources of fuel is an intriguing one. "Changing to alternative fuels means changing the vessels and their engine technology," Anne Goodchild, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, said.
"That's a huge… undertaking, that's a big cost," she added. "And so I think the most practical approach is an incremental one. But for smaller scales, for kind of feeder vessels that are doing shorter distances and may be closer to power, then that might be an area where we could look to trying to introduce some real bigger changes, bigger innovations."
Speed may be another area where environmental benefits can be found. Goodchild said the tactic of slowing vessels down as they near the coast, to reduce energy consumption, had been implemented domestically to beneficial effect.