If There Is A Will, There Is Net-Zero Shipping

Credit: Dominik Lückmann/Unsplash

As published by Energy Monitor, there have been rumours of a global decarbonization plan for the antiquated monolith of maritime shipping, but will the technology be developed in time to transform the tanker?

Decarbonise the industry 

Almost 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are caused by maritime transport or roughly the same as Germany.

International shipping, which includes the movement of products aboard container ships, bulk carrier ships, and tankers, is responsible for around 85% of the sector’s emissions.

Although shipping has improved its energy efficiency over the previous ten years, as global trade grows, emissions from the industry might rise up to 30% from 2008 levels by 2050.

For a while, net-zero shipping seemed like a pipe dream.

According to Faig Abbasov, shipping director at the Brussels-based Organization Transport & Environment, “at the world level, we are talking well over a gigatonne of CO2 every year; we are talking 100,000 ships” (T&E). 

Nonetheless, the worldwide initiative to decarbonize the industry is gaining support.

A variety of wealthy and emerging economies, including Nigeria, Chile, and Vietnam, joined the call for a sector-wide net-zero target at the most recent meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN shipping regulator, in London in December 2022.

A 2050 net-zero aim is currently supported by a clear majority of nations, according to the advocacy organisation Seas at Risk, raising the possibility that it may be adopted at the IMO’s upcoming meeting in June.

That would be a significant development for a sector plagued by division, bureaucracy, and vested interests, but even if there is political support for net-zero shipping, do we know how to implement it?

Zero-emission fuels: “well off track”

The amount of fuel required to move one tonne of goods one kilometre requires, the weight of the cargo being transported, the distance it must travel, and the amount of carbon released during the production and use of the fuel—also referred to as the fuel’s “carbon intensity”—all contribute to shipping emissions.

Although short-distance battery electric ships are being developed, the type of fuel utilised and its carbon intensity remain the primary concerns for decarbonizing the industry as a whole.

Alternative zero-emission fuels for transportation include e-methanol and Fischer Tropsch liquids, which are carbon-based fuels created from CO2 capture and green hydrogen.

On a recent green shipping webinar presented by the think tank RMI, Johan Byskov Svendsen, programme manager at the Maersk Mc-Kinney Mller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping, stated that the methanol engine is already in place but that the ammonia engine is still under development. Ammonia will probably be the preferred fuel in 50 years, whereas methanol will only be utilised in specialised applications.

Amogy, a US startup, plans to deploy the first ammonia-powered, emission-free ship in late 2023.

By 2030, 5-17% of maritime shipping fuel will need to be zero-emissions, and 84-93% by 2050, according to scenarios associated with a 1.5°C route.

According to Alex Hewitt, CEO of the worldwide green hydrogen developer CWP Global and current head of the Green Hydrogen Catapult, the industry would require 5.5 million tonnes of green hydrogen annually by 2030, necessitating investments between $120 billion and $150 billion. And by 2050, we’ll need 15 to 20 times more, he continues. “SCL has labelled the transition to zero-emission fuels as “way off track” due to the lack of deployment.

“As these alternative fuels are not yet widely available,” Svendsen argues.

“Before making a final investment decision, that must be in place.”

However, underlying Svendsen’s words lies a catch-22 that is dogging many sectoral decarbonisation agendas across the global economy: who should make the first move? “Shipowners always complain that there are no clean fuels available and sometimes they will add, ‘at an affordable price’,” says Abbasov. “Fuel suppliers, on the other hand, say they are ready to produce the fuels – once they get the signal that they will be bought by shipowners.”

“I am more on the side of fuel suppliers at the moment,” he adds. 

T&E analysis shows that using renewable hydrogen to power ships has little effect on the cost of the consumer items delivered, successfully refuting assertions made by the shipping industry that aggressive greening initiatives will result in significant price increases for customers.

Hapag-Lloyd, a major German shipping company, wants to reduce its GHG emissions by 30% by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2045.

Martin Koepke, the company’s sustainability manager, claims that the container lining specialist is in discussions with energy suppliers about finding enough alternative fuels to meet its requirements.

There are still uncertainties regarding matters like how we will add the new fuels to the ships, he continues, because some of the energy providers are new to the marine industry. The infrastructure comes next; for instance, where can we store the new fuels at the ports?


Alternative routes to net-zero shipping

Yet, there are other ways to decarbonize shipping besides using fuels with no emissions.

It will also be necessary to adapt many ships to accept fuels with no emissions.

In the immediate future, he envisions new technologies being adopted mostly when the fleet renews, but in the medium to long term there is a need for governmental involvement “because if you solely rely on the renewal of the fleet, we will never attain net-zero shipping by 2050”.

Also, modern technology enables ships to use the wind more effectively.

Huge kite sails and spinning cylinders known as Flettner rotors both use wind energy to move boats.

When combined with computer programmes that simulate wind speed and direction, this can reduce fuel consumption by 10%. Ships can then optimise their courses and further reduce fuel use by 10%.

Ships sailing at reduced speeds would be another easy approach to instantly reduce pollution.

Going slower is one of the most efficient and immediate strategies to reduce fuel use since the faster they go, the more energy they use.

High fuel prices can naturally cause this, but limiting ship speed would be necessary to lock in the advantages.

A 10% decrease in speed would result in a 30% reduction in emissions.

Abbasov says shore-side electricity could significantly reduce the 7% shipping emissions associated with ships at berth, but the ports would need to be equipped with large charging stations, and the grid would need to have enough capacity to take on vast additional demand that could be “equivalent to small cities”.

“[But] the main reason this hasn’t happened so far is that purchasing electricity from the grid is more expensive than burning dirty heavy fuel oils onboard,” Abbasov says. “That will remain so unless you either make fossil fuels more expensive or just force ships to connect to the grid when at port.” The EU and California are introducing regulations enforcing shore-side electricity.


“The Tesla moment for shipping”

A few technical obstacles are standing in the way of net-zero shipping by 2050.

Koepke acknowledges, “That is an extremely complex undertaking.

“That rule that will completely transform the maritime sector.”

Abbasov is pessimistic about the likelihood of an effective net-zero shipping agenda emerging from the IMO, however, given the organisation is attempting to secure agreement from 191 nations with wildly dissimilar interests, economic capacity, and capabilities. The number of chefs in the kitchen, he complains, is excessive.

Yet, almost 84% of all ships make port calls in the US, the EU, or China.

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Source: Energy Monitor


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