Political as well as technical progress will be fundamental to the success of one of shipping’s most ambitious decarbonisation projects.
“How dare you say that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight… How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions.”
Those words, delivered by climate activist Greta Thunberg as part of a blistering j’accuse at the opening of last week’s UN Climate Action Summit, could have been aimed directly at shipping. After all, what visible progress has really been made since IMO agreed to develop its initial strategy for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in April 2018?
It took less than a day for shipping to show its intent. The Getting to Zero coalition launched at the summit unites more than 70 stakeholders from the shipping, energy, infrastructure and finance sectors under the pledge to bring ‘commercially viable deep-sea zero-emission vessels powered by zero-emission fuels’ into operation by 2030.
Greta was not the only one on fine oratorical form that day in New York. Announcing the initiative, Søren Toft, chief operating officer of Maersk, noted that decarbonising shipping would require a “total shift in propulsion technologies and energy sources”. To reach this stage by 2050 – by when Maersk aims to have eliminated emissions while IMO hopes shipping in total will have cut its by half – will require the first zero-emission vessels by 2030.
“This requires collaboration from all stakeholders in our value chain,” said Toft. “The coalition will accelerate efforts to innovate, scale up and create the right framework conditions to make the transition happen by 2030. It is our hope that it can also be a showcase for other hard-to-abate sectors.”
Although described as a ‘moonshot’ (typically an ambition widely thought to be impossible and undertaken in the interest of exploration rather than profit), technology selection is not the biggest challenge for zero-emissions deep-sea shipping. As Toft noted, “the technologies are out there”. Indeed, the delivery of the project’s ‘narrowing of technology and fuel options’ work package is expected to be rapid – tentatively scheduled for next month, when work package leader UCL will present its findings at the Global Maritime Forum Annual Summit.
The technologies to be used are not even necessarily the point. The coalition’s ambition statement notes that members are ‘technology neutral’, focusing on the “zero carbon [and net-zero carbon] energy sources that are most likely to be technologically, economically, and politically feasible at scale”. Such fuels could include those derived from biomass such as biofuel or biogas; hydrogen or synthetic non-carbon fuels such as ammonia; and synthetic fossil fuels such as methane and methanol, produced with renewable energy and captured carbon.
The chosen fuel will make little difference to the engines burning it, says Sebastiaan Bleuanus of Wärtsilä, one of several technology partners in the coalition. He notes that engines are omnivores, capable of burning all fuels with relatively small modifications.
“For all candidate fuels the engine designs have a 95% parts commonality, which makes retrofitting between fuel choices very easy from the engine side. What makes a bigger difference is the fuel availability, supply infrastructure, onboard storage, safety and regulations.”
Many of these factors will be determined by shore-side development by stakeholders beyond shipowners and ship technologists. According to Jacques Vandermeiren, CEO of Antwerp Port Authority (one of several ports signed up to the coalition), a big part of shipping’s decarbonisation will in fact take place on land – and not just because, the coalition argues, 80% of shipping’s emissions come from port infrastructure.
“We must develop and produce low-carbon fuels on land and provide the infrastructure necessary to operate future zero-emission vessels,” says Vandermeiren. “Ports have a crucial role to play since much of the infrastructure required to support low-carbon shipping must be established in ports. This will take some time and require important investments.”
With just eleven years to fulfil their goal, the coalition has described an ambitious timeframe consisting of four phases. After the initial coalition-building phase to 2020, the group intends that by 2023 there will already be pilot vessels (albeit probably smaller, coastal ships) using the candidate fuels. Alongside pilot tests and scaling up production of low-carbon fuels, the political goals will include establishing trade corridors for zero-emission vessels, expanding access to finance and developing economic incentives. The later phases will be focused on scaling up pilot tests and preparing zero-emission vessels for roll-out, as well as further developing regulatory and business aspects.
Although technology neutral, a key decision will be whether to ‘piggyback’ on existing LNG infrastructure and vessels. By using methane derived from biomass or renewable power, today’s gas-fuelled vessels could easily be made to emit net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The coalition includes several shipowners who have already invested in LNG, including FSRU specialist Höegh LNG and gas-fuelled ship design consortium Forward Ships. Another consortium member, Shell, is also promoting LNG as a transitional marine fuel.
“Investment in LNG represents a no-regret cost for shipowners,” says Krishna Achuthanandam, business development manager for Shell’s LNG trading division. “With LNG there is already up to a 21% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. By dropping in 20% bio- or synthetic LNG fuel when it starts to become more available, that can be reduced by a further 15%. LNG puts shipowners a step ahead in the decarbonisation journey.”
However, gas fuel is not uncontroversial. Some in the coalition – not least the technology selection lead, UCL – have argued that further investment in fossil fuel LNG deflects resources from developing true zero-carbon fuels and infrastructure. Belgian shipowner CMB, another member, has invested significantly in hydrogen engine technology, while MAN Energy Solution is now developing (alongside its established LNG engines) a two-stroke engine capable of burning ammonia.
Whichever fuels are chosen, it will be land-side investment in research and infrastructure that determines their viability more than ship technology development. Multiple studies point to the conclusion that low-carbon fuels will require both economic incentives and regulatory intervention to lower their cost. To this extent, Greta Thunberg’s words ring very true: business as usual with some technical solutions will not suffice. Arguably the biggest achievement the Getting to Zero coalition can make will be to galvanise the political will to decarbonise shipping.