In terms of global warming and climate change, we don’t’ hear much about shipping, but in fact, ships are a massive contributor to global CO2. For the first time, shipping companies are planning to change this.

While they often slip under the radar of public discussion on global warming, ships are incredibly polluting. As well as pumping out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere they also belch out sulphur dioxide, which is emitted from burning the heavy diesel oil which most ships run on.

According to the World Economic Forum, if shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world on the level of Germany. But unlike countries, shipping belongs to virtually every nation and therefore is difficult to regulate. 

Currently, around 3% of all global CO2 emissions come from ships, which is roughly the same as aviation. Ships transport 90% of the world’s goods and the industry is rapidly growing.

However, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which is part of the United Nations, predicts that by 2050, CO2 emissions from ships will increase from between 50% and 250%. This means that if ships continue to run on fossil fuels, maritime emissions would make up 17% of total global carbon emissions.

The IMO, under pressure from small island states that are threatened by rising sea levels, set a target in 2018 to reduce emissions from shipping by at least 50% by 2050. But this won’t be easy because much of the technology that doesn’t burn fossil fuels has never been used on large vessels before.  

Soon after the target was set many of the world’s largest shipping companies made ambitious promises to cut their emissions by reducing the speed at which their vessels ply the seas. According to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), this resulted in emissions being cut by as much as 30%, but just reducing a ship’s speed is a short-term fix and won’t get the maritime industry anywhere close to meeting the IMO’s 50% target.

Maritime Technology not There Yet

In to see substantial carbon reductions from shipping, it’s going to take new engines running on new fuels in new ships. But many technical barriers, as well as financial problems, still have to be overcome and by in large the shipping industry is not yet interested in innovation in this area.

“Shipping companies are failing to push for the critical technologies required to reduce their carbon footprint,” CDP told CNN.

But some companies are leading the way in shipping innovation and one of them is the huge Danish company Maersk. Maersk is the world’s biggest shipping company and earned $39 billion in revenue last year. Since 2014 it has invested $1billion on more sustainable technology for its vessels and by 2030 Maersk intends to reduce its emissions by 60%

Maersk is already running trials with different fuels and with propulsion technology that uses electric batteries.

“If we want to be ready in ten years, we need to get started now, [decarbonising shipping] requires a completely new propulsion technology,” John Kornerup, head of sustainability at Maersk told CNN. 

But even Maersk admits Kornerup will struggle to implement new zero and low carbon technology without collaboration from the industry.

World’s Fist Vessel to Run on Hydrogen

Although in its infancy, the technology is out there. A river and harbour ferry, which can carry up to 16 passengers has been developed by a Belgian company called Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB). It is powered by an engine that burns hydrogen and diesel and produces no carbon dioxide or sulphur oxides making its only emissions hydrogen and water.

CMB is also planning to develop a ferry that runs on hydrogen and diesel with Japan’s Tsuneishi Facilities by 2021.

Next year CMB is planning to launch an engine that is capable of powering larger vessels like tugs and barges and by the end of the next decade a hydrogen engine that can power container ships.

One of the only other players in the shipping industry looking seriously at innovation in greener technology is the Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten, which has just launched the world’s first hybrid cruise ship called the Roald Amundsen. It is powered by a combination of batteries and marine gas oil and produces around 20% fewer emissions than ships of a similar size.

But other than this, big shipping companies are not investing in new engine technology and there are virtually no incentives and financial regulations in place to encourage them.

While the battery revolution is powering clean vehicles on land, electric ships are unlikely to be sailing the oceans even by 2050, because electric batteries can’t store enough energy to propel ships across great distances.

LNG and Biofuels May Give Short Term Answers

One short to medium term answer might be liquified natural gas (LNG) or biofuels. By as soon as 2021 Hurtigruten wants to operate a fully hybrid fleet and all its ships will run on a mix of LNG batteries and biogas, which includes organic waste from dead fish. Royal Dutch Shell also has over 40 large carriers powered by LNG.

But while LNG is a lot cleaner than heavy diesel oil, it still contains mainly methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and that’s why LNG is not a long-term solution.

Another alternative is to burn a mix of biofuels and fuel oil. Maersk recently ran a large container ship on 20% biofuels and 80% fuel oil from Rotterdam to Shanghai, which reduced its CO2 emissions during the journey by 85%.

But this again has pitfalls and according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the mass adoption of biofuels is not an answer to reducing CO2 emissions form shipping.

The European Federation for Transport and Environment, an umbrella for European non-governmental organizations working in this field, concluded in the 2018 report called ‘roadmap to decarbonising European Shipping’ that “the biggest pitfalls are biofuels, which can’t be scaled or enforced sustainably, especially in shipping. LNG and synthetic methane are other dead ends due to methane leakage and enforcement problems.”

It seems that the best option of currently available technology is dual fuel system engines which use a combination of a low carbon fuel such as hydrogen and diesel. 

Aviation Lags Behind Shipping

In contrast the aviation industry has not even made modest gains in reducing its emissions and lacks any plan to cut emissions in the future.

Whereas ships can be modified to accommodate different fuels, large batteries and indeed hull designs can be relatively easily retrofitted, aircraft need to be entirely redesigned at a cost of billions.

Then there is the problem that air passenger numbers are forecast to double by 2035, which means that any gains the aviation industry has made in fuel efficiency have been swamped and are no longer relevant in terms of the massively increased number of flights.   

While there are tentative plans afoot to develop electric and hybrid aircraft for short-haul flights, for long haul flights this is not an option for the foreseeable future. 

There is also a new movement among the major banks to identify and call out the highest carbon emitters in the shipping industry. The so-called Poseidon Principles, which were announced in June, are the first-ever mechanism for banks to measure and disclose climate risk in shipping. As up to a quarter of the debt in the shipping industry is held by banks that have signed up to the Poseidon Principles, it means that those falling behind in their carbon emissions are forced to catch up.    

But pressure is increasing in the aviation industry to do more and the idea of ‘flight shaming’ is spreading from Europe to the US. It is estimated that in Sweden the number of flights has dropped by 9% as a result of flight shaming. 

Edward Cowley