The large size of these ships has repeatedly sparked discussions asking: Are they too big? And are the associated risks still manageable?
Anyone who hastily calls for size-restrictions on large container ships must at the same time explain how the global exchange of goods is supposed to function under the given conditions: Shipping – and container shipping, in particular – is a growth market. Large container ships are needed to accommodate the growing global trade volumes and to supply national economies as efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly as possible. This has been made clear, for example, by the coronavirus pandemic. Unexpectedly high demand has delivered it share to stretch logistics chains to the limit.
The increased use of large container ships – known as ultra large container vessels (ULCVs) – has not led to more accidents. In fact, shipping has actually become safer and safer across the world in recent years and decades. The number of serious incidents (total losses) has steadily decreased – by 68% within the last decade alone, from 130 in 2010 to 41 in 2019. And this has happened even though ships – and especially container ships – have steadily grown larger and larger and transported more and more goods at the same time (see second graphic).
Large container ships enable operators to achieve so-called economies of scale, meaning that they can transport comparatively large amounts of cargo efficiently. These cost savings are one of the factors that has helped liner shipping companies weather the post-2009 shipping crisis.
However, another benefit of using larger ships can be seen if one looks at their relative emissions, as the state-of-the-art engines and high carrying capacities of large container ships makes them particularly climate-friendly. For example, most of the new ULCVs are being built with so-called "dual-fuel" propulsion systems that will allow them to use both standard fuel oil and climate-friendlier liquefied natural gas. If one prefers to use small ships (and therefore more ships overall for the same transport volume), one has to expect that more emissions will be caused simply because of the larger number of vessels used, even if these ships are operated with cutting-edge engines.
Like all sea-going vessels, large container ships are closely monitored and certified by independent classification societies during both the design and construction phases. They are also subject to regular inspections while in service – not only by shipping companies and the respective flag states, but also by port states and certainly classification societies.