HullWiper | Achieving decarbonisation in the shipping industry

Achieving decarbonisation in the shipping industry

22 Mar 2022

22 Mar22 Achieving decarbonisation in the shipping industry Photo

It's not gossip or a secret that the shipping industry is one of the world's biggest carbon polluters. Shipping accounts for nearly 3% of global emissions, but as the world's GDP continues to grow, this percentage is set to increase to 17% by 2050. Decarbonising the maritime sector is a trending topic as numerous governments and organisations look for innovative methods to cut emissions, especially as the world endeavours to achieve the target of limiting a global temperature rise of 1.5 °C.

While the greater community has made substantial headway in achieving its target of 40% by 2030, there is still a long, “long” way to go.

The CO2 dilemma

Approximately 300 million metric tons of dirty fossil fuels are burned each year as vessels sail across ocean waters. This equates to roughly one billion tons of carbon dioxide released into the environment annually.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has implemented cap on the amount of sulfur that is contained in fuels on board ships. As of January 2020, all onboard fuel is required to contain no more than 0.5% - a massive improvement from the previous limit of 3.5%, and the industry average of 2.%.

A growing number of shipowners and operators are moving away from heavy fossil-based bunker fuels and there is a rise in converting existing ships to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG). While utilising LNG offers a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions, the lifecycle of this alternative fuel still produces carbon emissions and methane - a greenhouse gas that affects the Earth's temperature and climate, with research indicating that it is 30 times stronger than CO2.

The use of LNG is not enough to get the industry to a net-zero future. One of the biggest challenges currently facing the sector is a lack of zero-carbon technologies that can be implemented on a large scale. Hydrogen and ammonia are currently the front runners when it comes to alternative fuel sources, but producing and incorporating these onto vessels on a larger scale may only be possible in the next few decades.

There are several obstacles that the industry will need to overcome when it comes to hydrogen and ammonia, including that it is highly flammable and is less energy-dense than bunker fuel. This simply means that hydrogen fuel cells will take up more space on cargo ships. As of yet, only small vessels and short voyages along the coast have been successful with utilising this fuel.

There is no one size fits all

On 12 December 2015, the historic Paris Agreement saw countless nations around the world agree to work together in order to reduce GHG emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming. Governments have established their own overarching objectives to reduce emissions and have created policies to ensure it meets emission reduction targets.

For example, the United Kingdom has set a target of reducing emissions by 78% by 2035, while the EU has set out a proposal that would see the shipping industry reduce its emissions by 75% by 2050.

One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to cutting emissions in the maritime world is deciding which country is allocated emissions. The registration of a ship, the origins of the vessel, the destination of cargo, or where the ship’s fuel is sold - if we were to consider all of these factors, it would provide drastically different emission responsibilities for each country.

Each nation has its own competing interests and targets that it has set, and these factors have made it a challenge for the IMO – who coordinates measures to curb maritime emissions for more than 170 member states - to ensure that targets are being met.

What needs to happen?

A more ambitious net-zero target will need to be adopted. As it stands, the industry is working towards achieving an emissions reduction of 50% by 2050. However, in order to stay on track with the Paris Agreement, these targets will need to be adjusted - a point that is set to be reviewed in 2023 by the IMO.

Green innovation is one of the key factors to ensuring the industry achieves its decarbonisation objectives. A deadline may need to be implemented to ensure that shipping meets its ambitious goal of clean fuel-powered vessels in the coming future. Additionally, a substantial global price on carbon emissions will also need to be considered, which could be the catalyst the industry needs to drive significant behaviour change. Numerous trade groups have urged the IMO to prioritise a carbon tax that would encourage vessel operators to invest in alternative fuel technologies.

While numerous steps have been taken to ensure progress is made to decarbonise the shipping sector, global unity will need to be achieved. In the coming years, it will be crucial for more member states to start doing their part in achieving net-zero by 2050.