What will the world’s ports look like in 2050?

What will the world’s ports look like in 2050?

Global trade requires constant innovation to increase resilience and respond to climate change.

Fortunately, technology and decarbonisation efforts across the industry are pulling in the same direction and will shape how the logistics of tomorrow will look. Ports and terminals play a key role in this and are set to be transformed as we enhance efficiency, boost sustainability and integrate technology.

It’s necessary as well, with the global shipping container market predicted to grow by 4.2% annually between 2024 and 2030. The Paris Agreement requires net zero by 2050, a date by which rising sea levels could make some of the world’s key seaports unusable, according to Lloyd’s Global Maritime Trends 2050 report.

To respond to this challenge and weather-related disruptions, port operators need to understand mitigation and adaptation measures related to climate change.

Making ports fit for the future will also help to make them more sustainable, with DP World aiming to become a net-zero carbon enterprise by 2040, aligning with global initiatives like the UNFCCC's Race to Zero and the UAE's 2050 net-zero initiative.

As we look ahead, here are some of the innovations that are set to reshape our port operations and help us get there.

1. Renewable energy

Renewable energy will be central to powering the ports of the future as they transition toward cleaner operations. Traditional renewable energy sources from solar and wind will continue to serve as the key drivers, however biogas, offshore wind, tidal and floating solar may be technologies that can complement traditional sources and power our ports in a more sustainable way.

Getting to that point will require overcoming challenges around energy storage and using commercial or utility scale batteries to provide stable electricity when renewable sources like wind and solar are not generating power. Depending on port location, other energy storage options including pumped hydro or flywheel technologies may be available to supplement the renewable energy transition.

DP World has partnered with Masdar, a leader in clean energy, to integrate renewable energy and battery storage systems across its ports in the Middle East and Africa, with an initial focus on Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Egypt. The three-year collaboration will enhance the use of solar power and energy storage and tackle regulatory challenges, especially in developing nations.

2. Port electrification

Electrification of ports is gaining momentum, and the port of the future will run on electrified equipment coupled with renewable energy to produce net-zero operations.

This includes assets like quay cranes, rubber tyred gantries and untethered container handling equipment, including terminal tractors, straddle carriers, reach stackers and empty container handlers, which form the majority of port equipment.

Initiatives like the Zero Emission Port Alliance (ZEPA), an industry-wide coalition, launched by DP World and APM Terminals, focus on reducing emissions for untethered container handling equipment in ports . ZEPA aims to make battery-electric container handling equipment (BE-CHE) more affordable and accessible through collaboration, including between port operators, OEMs, port authorities and other industry alliances to accelerate the drive toward fully electrified future ports.

3. Greener fuels

The shipping industry is shifting toward greener fuels such as ammonia, methanol and biodiesel to decarbonise shipping fleets, which also directly impacts port operations.

With shipping fleets transitioning to these alternatives, the demand for traditional bunker fuels will fall. Ports are already adapting their infrastructure, storage facilities and logistical operations to accommodate changing vessel needs.

Furthermore, the energy demands of ships in port will increasingly be provided by shore power – known as cold ironing – as industry emissions regulations tighten. Here, port operators need to consider the need to, and impact of, deploying shore power infrastructure, which is both costly and requires consensus between many stakeholders including port authority, utilities and regulators.

This shift highlights the interconnectedness of the shipping industry and port operations, showcasing the domino effect of industry-wide changes.

4. Smart technologies

Technologies are already in use at many ports and are set to go further. Augmented and virtual reality, digital twins and drones are set to be key features in all of tomorrow’s ports.

Using virtual reality technology, operators can control cranes and equipment from remote locations, taking them away from potentially hazardous or challenging work environments and boosting safety and productivity .

Digital twins are set to become essential to all ports as they reduce and predict maintenance issues and schedule downtime. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where all global operations can be monitored and managed from a single screen, using this technology. Digital twins can offer insights, promote better asset management, increase transparency and sustainability and drive efficiency.

At our Jebel Ali port, digital twins are already in use, enhancing operational efficiency, optimising resource management, providing real-time insights into port activities and monitoring truck traffic and ship traffic.

5. Digital platforms

Technology is transforming ports’ data management practices and helping optimise their supply chain operations. Data storage and documentation are becoming more secure and digital contracts can automate and speed up parts of the shipping process.

Increasingly, terminal operating systems need to be interoperable with other digital platforms, including asset management, customer relationship management, billing systems and financial reporting.

With these technologies sharing data to enable end-to-end supply chain operations, the supply chains of the future will be more transparent, more cost-effective and will eliminate the need for third-party brokers.

6. Automation

Greater automation of container yards and other port operations is already increasing efficiency, reducing costs and lowering emissions . Automated ports are shown to be safer, with a more predictable performance and a lower accident rate.

Automation also streamlines port operations by reducing manual tasks: many processes can be automated, leaving humans to handle exceptions. And while upfront capital expenditures for automation can be high, in the long run, there are significant cost savings. All this requires upskilling for workers, shifting from manual operators to data-led technicians and systems analysts.

Predicting the future is never an exact science, and some of the technologies that will reshape future supply chains are still being invented or are yet to be imagined. For us, unlocking innovations and technologies that can solve these challenges is part of the fun.

One thing is certain: the ports of tomorrow will be radically different from today, as technology and environmental concerns play a role in reshaping all our lives.