FT Rethink

Shipping’s voyage to a net-zero future

Shipping’s voyage to a net-zero future

90% of goods and products brought to market are dependent on sea freight, with many being shipped several times over as component parts are moved and processed across international networks1. Moving the more than ten billion tonnes of freight handled each year employs more than 1.5 million people directly2, and supports many more jobs in the wider network of shipping-dependent industries. Matching the scale of this activity though is shipping’s environmental impact. Reliant on highly polluting heavy fuel oil the industry is responsible for 3% of global CO2 emissions3 and has a dismal record on particulate emissions, emissions which give rise to acid rain and are increasingly recognised as contributing to respiratory disease and excess deaths.

Until recently shipping had largely stayed out of the sustainability spotlight, with aviation, a smaller CO2 contributor at 2.5% of global emissions4, more often a target for climate activism. But with greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping industry sitting stubbornly at over a billion tonnes each year5, the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) target of a 50% reduction by 2050 is now being criticised as an inadequate response to the scale of the problem. In the US, special envoy for climate change John Kerry plans to push the IMO to do more, saying: “The US is committing to work with countries in the IMO to adopt the goal of achieving net zero emissions from international shipping by no later than 2050.” In Europe, market forces are being brought to bear as shipping is set to be added to the EU’s carbon credit trading scheme from 2023. As pressure on the industry mounts we look at some of the innovations and technologies that are being employed to speed the journey to net zero.

Reliant on highly polluting heavy fuel oil the industry is responsible for 3% of global CO2 emissions and has a dismal record on particulate emissions…

Read also: Technology is at the heart of change for the transport sector

Finding new fuels

Criticised for an overall lack of ambition on greenhouse gases, the IMO’s response on the emission of sulphur dioxides in particular has been more robust. In 2020, to reduce some of the harmful impacts of shipping on human health, the IMO imposed an 85% reduction in the permitted limit of fuel sulphur content6. Shipping lines were faced with three choices – replace cheap heavy fuel oil with expensive low sulphur fuel oil, install exhaust cleaning systems, or kick the oil habit altogether.

Choosing the latter, an increasing number of firms are making a switch to Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), which promises a near 100% reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions. More than half of the ultra-large container ships currently on order will be either LNG-powered or LNG-ready7, with LNG’s renewable alternative, bio-LNG, already fuelling some of the world’s largest container ships. But the choice is controversial, with worries over infrastructure, methane slip, and carbon emissions the subject of sometimes tense debate. In 2021 A.P. Moller Maersk’s head of de-carbonisation, Jacob Sterling, felt an instant backlash when he described the switch by many firms to Liquid Natural Gas as “borderline greenwashing”.

While renewable bio-fuels might offer the promise of achieving net-zero, at the point of use most still involve emissions, so now some firms are looking further, targetting zero-emissions shipping

Moller Maersk, the world’s second largest shipping firm, is opting instead for methanol, which is easy to handle, has low infrastructure costs, and lower carbon emissions than both LNG and fuel oil. By using renewable bio-methanol produced from bio-mass, or even synthetic methanol made from captured carbon, Maersk expects to achieve net-zero emissions within two decades. Demonstrating their commitment to this aim, Maersk have announced that their next twelve container ships, behemoths capable of carrying 15,000 containers, will all be built to run on methanol, and in March of this year the company entered into partnerships with six energy firms to jump-start the fledgling market for renewable methanol. While renewable bio-fuels might offer the promise of achieving net-zero, at the point of use most still involve emissions, so now some firms are looking further, targetting zero-emissions shipping.

 

Going electric

In November 2021, when the Yara Birkeland first set sail in a Norwegian fjord, she represented a step-change in shipping’s journey to net-zero – the first ever 100% emissions free container ship. Powered by an electric motor, with batteries charged predominantly from renewable hydroelectric power, the Yara Birkeland’s regular forty-mile round trip saves the emissions of more than one hundred lorry journeys a day.

While the Birkeland is small at a capacity of just 150 containers, US start-up Fleetzero plans electric shipping on a grander scale. Their vision – trans-Pacific ships running on batteries housed in shipping containers – would see batteries swapped in and out along with cargo, requiring zero charging time in port. Fleetzero expects to convert their first 3,000+ container ship to electric in 2025, by when they may be facing competition from a much older technology.

Read also: Is hydrogen the key to a sustainable transport system? An interview with Philippe Rosier, CEO, Symbio

Two hundred years since coal powered vessels seemingly rendered sailing ships obsolete, the industry is again embracing wind-power

Harnessing the wind

Two hundred years since coal powered vessels seemingly rendered sailing ships obsolete, the industry is again embracing wind-power. In Sweden, ship-design firm Wallenius Marine is building a sail-powered cargo vessel with a modern twist. The Oceanbird – designed to transport 7,000 cars – will be powered by vertical wings. Expected to be more efficient and robust than traditional sails, the Oceanbird’s telescopic foils will enable a trans-Atlantic journey in twelve days, only four days longer than the equivalent fuel oil powered vessel. With a back-up engine for use only in unfavourable winds the designers expect to achieve a carbon emission reduction of up to 90%.

French firm Neoline is also targetting emissions reductions of up to 90%. Their new ship, the Neoliner, will rely on traditional fabric sails, but with a novel duplex rigging system increasing efficiency. Bringing wind technology back has other benefits too. By cutting sound pollution to near zero the harm that noisy engines cause to marine life, which often rely on sound for feeding and navigation, will be eliminated. For consumers seeking to reduce their own environmental impact it’s a particularly appealing vision, and already a number of large firms, among them Michelin and Clarins, have made a commitment to use the new Neoliner when she enters service in 2024.

…as consumers become more aware of the environmental impact of supply chains, and regulations begin to bite, pressure on shipping firms to wean themselves off oil is growing

When it was left out of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris climate accords the shipping industry may have felt it had been let off the hook. But as consumers become more aware of the environmental impact of supply chains, and regulations begin to bite, pressure on shipping firms to wean themselves off oil is growing. As rival alternatives are tested and competing infrastructures built it is clear that the industry’s approach to decarbonisation is fractured and sometimes fractious, with LNG and bio-LNG, methanol and bio-methanol, ammonia, hydrogen, electricity and wind power all being touted as the answer. But whether the solution is one or several, and whatever the journey taken to get there, the end game – net-zero shipping – must be the same.

 

1 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/10/global-shortagof-shipping-containers/
2 https://www.ics-shipping.org/shipping-fact/shipping-and-world-trade-global-supply-and-demand-for-seafarers/
Fourth Greenhouse Gas Study 2020 (imo.org)
Climate change and flying: what share of global CO2 emissions come from aviation? - Our World in Data
5 https://www.sei.org/publications/shipping-emissions-per-commodity/#key-messages
6 https://wwwcdn.imo.org/localresources/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/Documents/Finland%20study%20on%20health%20benefits.pdf
7 https://sea-lng.org/reports/sea-lng-2021-22-a-view-from-the-bridge/

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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