In greening our homes, we look for cues — a green label on light bulb packages, “reusable” or “recycled” plastered on shopping bags, or efficiency symbols on appliances. It’s a little bit harder when you’re shopping for sustainable ports.

The American Association of Ports Authorities met last month at the Francis Marion Hotel, discussing inland distribution, regional transportation, asset management, and the shifting market for capital investment. But panels on climate change and port sustainability were what really peered into the future.

The challenge facing public and private port developers is a lack of leadership on the federal level, says Jay Jahangri, president and environmental health/safety director for TRE Consulting of Martinez, Calif.

“What that’s led to is a hodgepodge of local regulations and voluntary standards, and in some cases, organizations creating internal standards of their own,” he says.

With little for ports to look to as a national standard in efficiency, the rock star in the room was Nicholas Kozma, senior program manager for the Port of Long Beach. Not only is he doing green, as opposed to just talking about it, he’s doing it on a grand scale at the fifth largest port in the world.

Last month, the Port of Long Beach signed a multimillion-dollar deal with California Edison to provide the infrastructure for shore-side power. The connection to the grid at multiple berths will allow container ships to shut down their engines while discharging their cargo, dramatically reducing emissions.

But as Kozma reported, this was just the latest initiative tied to Long Beach’s four-year-old green port policy, which he describes as a “framework for environmentally-friendly port operations.”

The Port of Long Beach has consolidated smaller terminals on its 1,200-acre site, implemented clean-truck and slow-ship policies to reduce harmful emissions, and removed, treated, and reused contaminated soils and sediments in the harbor district.

Other efforts include a clean harbor craft initiative, “green leases” to ensure that terminal tenants adopt and abide by sustainable practices, recycling everything that can be recycled, and even planting native vegetation in the port district to soften its industrial look while not causing a dramatic increase in the amount of water used on the grounds.

“In every move we make, we’re aiming at targeted effects or targeted benefits, and we’re extending it to every area we can, be it construction, engineering, purchasing, procurement, whatever,” Kozma says. The goal is a 45 percent reduction in the harbor district’s air pollution in the next five years. Kozma says the effort has already saved the port $15 million.

John Pauling, vice president of Halcrow, a Sewell, N.J.-based design and management consulting firm, says it’s still difficult to make the business case for sustainable practices.

“There are no universal solutions, the societal case isn’t readily evident — it seems ‘futuristic’, and in some ways, it feels like compliance, like something you’re being forced to do,” he says.

“However, I would argue opportunity trumps responsibility, and the more you look, the more potential benefits you’ll find in sustainable policies and practices,” he adds. “At the very least, you’ll reduce your regulatory risk if and when these policies become mandatory in your state.”

The Port of Charleston is clearly the leader in sustainability in the region, says State Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller, noting the local port has more emission reduction programs under way than any other port in the Southeast. “We completed the first port air emissions inventory in the region, and we were also the first in the region to switch to ultra-low sulfur diesel.”

The fuel, considered far less polluting than traditional diesel, is also being used by port partners, including seven port tenants, the Charleston Harbor Pilots, and S.C. Public Railways.

Grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are helping to retrofit trucks to further reduce emissions. Miller also credited the private sector, which he said has put up “big money” to match federal grants.

“Cleaner engines reduce emission and fuel usage,” he says. “That’s good for the economy and the environment.”

It’s when you get into the specifics of sustainable efforts, things like shore-side power for docked ships, where idyllic principles face off against the realities of a business. The new North Charleston terminal will be fitted for shore-side power, but its practical use may still be years off even after the port opens in 2016. The large cost to retrofit ships (up to $2 million), the question about where this power would come from, and the limited amount of time the ship will be docked has Miller wondering if other alternative solutions may arise between now and then.

“What’s the cost of providing the benefits of shore-side power compared to the ship using an auxiliary engine generator?” he asks. “If it were that simple, everyone would be doing it, but they’re not. The answer might be the use of even cleaner fuels for ships at berth.”

When it comes to the impacts of doing nothing, Charleston provides a good example, says Margaret Davidson, director of NOAA’s local Coastal Services Center.

“From a marketing standpoint you don’t have to go all the way to the ark scenario to make your point,” she says of Charleston. “All you have to do is look at the prevailing trend, which suggests that over the next few decades we may see a sea level rise of about 39 centimeters.”

What that means in a practical sense is that the flooding downtown four or five times a year as a result of the convergence of a full moon and high tides could occur in the not-too-distant future about 200 times a year.

“The clearest sign we’re seeing of something happening to our climate is that whatever extreme event is in your neighborhood, it’s happening more often,” Davidson says. “Whatever your climate challenge is, it’s going to kick your butt and kick it harder. And it gets more expensive every year.”

Davidson says over the next decade businesses and semi-public entities like the port will have to adapt to the changing climate if they have any hopes of not breaking the bank over the long term. The hard political reality, Davidson says, is that Charleston is not as significant as other cities that will be in harm’s way if climate change and sea level rise continue to follow the current trends.

“As a result, you can’t sit back and think the federal government is going to be there to pay for your protection,” she says, noting the big spigots of Washington dollars will likely go elsewhere before they trickle down here. “Clearly, the no-regret option is to adapt. And that goes for everyone. After all, most of the world’s largest cities are located at the water’s edge, and 98 percent of our consumer economy is based on stuff coming in by port.”