The shipping industry prepares for a future powered by sustainable fuels

Experts say the shipping industry will need to decarbonise quickly to keep global average temperature rise below the critical 1.5C threshold and find alternative green fuels to the dirty diesel that currently powers most ships.

To keep 1.5C alive, global emissions will need to peak by 2025, halve by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, according to the UN climate science body, the Panel. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Maritime transport is currently responsible for almost 3% of global emissions, generating around 1 billion tonnes of CO2 and greenhouse gases each year. If it were a country, it would be the sixth biggest polluter in the world.

Without further action, its emissions will not decline fast enough: by 2050, they are expected to reach 90-130% of their 2008 levels.

Despite the footprint, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations body responsible for shipping, has failed to introduce regulations to reduce maritime emissions and drive sustainable innovation in the sector.

However, progress is steadily coming from the industry itself and from some governments, in the development of sustainable fuels and initiatives to boost adoption. But, while methanol, ammonia and hydrogen are considered some of the main options, concerns remain about the readiness of these alternatives for large-scale deployment, their own possible impacts and potential trade-offs in achieving of a transition.

The EU is preparing to decarbonize maritime transport
The European Union is taking matters into its own hands with several new regulations aimed at cleaning up maritime transport in the coming years. These include a sustainable fuel mandate within the EU, which sets quantitative carbon intensity reduction targets over five-year periods, and the inclusion of maritime emissions in the emissions trading scheme. transmission (ETS) of the block. From the start of 2023, maritime transport will fall under the EU ETS, and all ships transporting goods to and from the EU – regardless of the flag they fly – will be taxed on their emissions.

The FuelEU Maritime initiative aims to increase the use of low-carbon and renewable fuels in maritime transport. But environmental campaigners have warned it falls short of the ambition needed to decarbonise industry and is promoting the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which releases methane, a gas with a significant impact on global warming when he is burnt. The Brussels-based Transport & Environment think tank says the proposed law could do more harm than good and the EU risks creating stranded assets, some of which will be publicly funded.

“[The regulation] has advantages for LNG. There is currently no economic justification for a shipping company to choose methanol or ammonia over LNG. They are considerably more expensive,” said Faig Abbasov, shipping program manager at Transport & Environment.

“It incentivizes the use of LNG and biofuels, but what we really need is to strongly incentivize the long-term scalable solutions, which are green hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels” , said Tristan Smith, transport and energy expert at University College London’s Energy. Institute.

Sustainability takes time, involves trade-offs
The Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB) is betting on hydrogen as the future fuel for maritime transport. The Antwerp group now has three hydrogen vessels on the water, including the world’s first hydrogen tug. It is also building 28 large ammonia-capable ships for Chinese companies.

“By 2030, we aim to have all our vessels future-proof, whether zero-carbon or low-carbon,” said CMB CEO Alexander Saverys. To achieve this, renewables to generate carbon-free fuels must become cheaper and more readily available, while CO2 emissions must be taxed, Saverys said, adding that “both of these trends are already happening.”

CMB invests in hydrogen for short trips and ammonia for international trips, both ideally produced from renewable energy sources. “Hydrogen in compressed form is ideal for decarbonizing smaller vessels that operate on shorter commercial routes and may refuel frequently,” Saverys said.

Ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that does not emit CO2 when burned, is the best option for container ships transporting goods over long distances, Saverys explained, adding that it is possible to store more ammonia on ships than hydrogen.

Since ammonia is already used around the world as a fertilizer in agriculture, a vast infrastructure already exists. But today, most ammonia is generated in an energy-intensive process, which releases large amounts of CO2 and methane. The technology to produce renewable ammonia on a large scale and store it is not yet available.

Ammonia is also a polluting fuel when burned. It releases powerful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, so ships sailing on it will need to install Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) technology to convert the NOx in the exhaust gases into water vapor and nitrogen, Saverys said.

There are also significant environmental and safety concerns about ammonia, said Freda Fung, an independent consultant specializing in decarbonizing shipping.

“It is highly toxic compared to methanol,” Fung said, adding that an ammonia spill could be “a huge disaster” that would devastate marine ecosystems. “We need to develop really good backup protocols – not just on paper, but also in operations.”

Smith, from UCL, was more confident, pointing to the stability of the existing ammonia infrastructure: “A lot of people think the [safety] the risks from ammonia are insurmountable, which makes no sense, as we already store and transport 15 million tonnes of ammonia [cargo] by sea every year.

Methanol can be used now
Some companies see “green methanol,” produced from renewable energy, as a better short-term option. The cost of building new ships and retrofitting existing ships to run on methanol is significantly lower than carbon-free alternative fuels. And unlike ammonia, liquid methanol does not need to be stored under pressure or at extremely cold temperatures.

“In the immediate term, methanol has a role to play,” Fung said. “It’s easier to store on a ship, the engines are already running, and it’s safer to handle as fuel.”

Maersk, until last year the world’s largest container shipping company, is betting on methanol to help it reach its net zero goal by 2040. The shipping giant is investing in a fleet of 12 container ships powered by methanol, produced from biofuels and renewable energy. Maersk says the new vessels will reduce its annual CO2 emissions by 1.5 million tonnes when they start operating.

Meanwhile, Swiss engine maker WinGD has said its engines will be able to run on methanol and ammonia by 2024 and 2025, seeking “multi-fuel solutions” that will allow flexibility with current diesel fuels as they are working towards a complete transition.

“We are investing in both methanol and ammonia simply because there is no single path to decarbonization. There are two quite different paths that lead to the same goal,” said Andrea Lazaro, Business Development Manager at WinGD. “The market will determine which is the best fuel.”

Methanol does not have the pollution problems that ammonia has and is much less toxic to handle, Lazarro said. The fuel is readily biodegradable in water and breaks down in seven days if spilled.

The renewable electricity you need to produce these fuels is staggering and it simply doesn’t exist right now.
Andrea Lazaro, Business Development Manager at WinGD

However, many experts argue that green methanol is not the right fuel to decarbonize the shipping industry because production is energy-intensive and requires carbon dioxide.

“With methanol, you’re very limited on carbon from sustainable sources,” Smith said. “We know it will be more expensive than ammonia because you have to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, which is an extremely expensive and very inefficient immature technology.”

Relying on carbon capture technology is not a long-term solution, Smith added, because “it does nothing to solve the problem of stopping fossil emissions from [entering] the atmosphere.”

China, the world’s largest shipbuilder and the country with the largest maritime fleet, has started building methanol-powered tankers and recently started the first sea trials. only a follower in the race to find alternative fuels, Fung said: “They have industry, ports and manufacturers.”

Cleaning up domestic shipping could also help China reach its net zero goal by 2060, Fung added, but said EU and IMO regulations would be a “driving force” in determining the pace of China’s transition.

Massive investment needed
Countries need to dramatically increase renewable energy production to produce carbon-free fuels. Less than 0.2 million tonnes of renewable methanol are produced each year and currently ammonia production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

To produce hydrogen-derived fuels on a large scale, countries need to invest in electrolyzers and renewable energy capacities, mainly wind and solar.

“The renewable electricity you need to produce these fuels is staggering and it just doesn’t exist right now,” Lazaro said. “The production ramp-up timeline is measured in decades.”

Australia is a country that invests heavily in hydrogen. It has announced plans to build 40 gigawatts of electrolyser capacity by 2030, much of it near major ports.

“Demand comes before supply. There must be a demand for investors to invest their money in new fuels and ships,” said Abbasov of Transport & Environment. “No one is going to invest tens of billions in something for which there is no market.”
Source: China Ocean Dialogue