Decarbonization of shipping: How close are we?

To recap, the decarbonization approach in shipping industry was formally adopted as an IMO decision in the spring of 2018 to establish clear and ambitious goals for the carbon efficiency of shipping. Specifically, the multi-state nature of maritime shipping excluded the industry from the Paris Climate Agreement struck two years ago, under the explanation that ships are almost always outside national borders. Furthermore, the actual nationality of ships is often different from that of their owners, operators and/or crew.

Shipping GHG reduction fall to the IMO strategy which aims towards strict international rules for sulfur emissions in sensitive marine environments (2020 Sulphur cap), less shipping emissions of greenhouse gases by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008 and zero GHG emissions over the century. The general consensus is that IMO’s goals requires urgent and coordinated action that involves all maritime stakeholders.


A holistic approach is needed

Energy efficiency referring to electric and hybrid vessels, wind assistance, etc., new systems, technologies and strategies to remove emissions released during operations, slow steaming measures as well as lower carbon content fuels and non-fossil fuels such as biofuels, hydrogen, ammonia, etc. are considered the potential pathways towards decarbonization.

Easy to store zero or low-carbon fuels (for example sustainable biofuel and methanol) may also be an attractive solution as existing infrastructure and machinery can be used to ease the transition, mentions Lloyd’s Register (LR) and University Maritime Advisory Services (UMAS) latest study, which further finds 2020 – 2030 the most significant decade. This decade will need to see full-scale pilots and prototypes, the development of policy, standards and rules, and will be characterized by first adopters driven by consumer pressure.

“There are different paths to reach this goal and every turn of a path has its seduction and promises attached. A path may hold so many possibilities for shipping stakeholders but what is clear though is that the era of emitting fossil fuels must be left behind,” notes UMAS’ Principal Consultant, Carlo Raucci.


First movers in decarbonization

There is great need for the industry to take negotiations further, adopt a holistic approach and raise the bar for the commitment of shipping in 2020 and beyond; just like Scandinavian countries which are said to set out to lead world shipping towards eliminating GHG emissions.

Sweden plans to limit emissions from domestic transport 70% by 2030, with a plan of zero emissions by 2045. It goes without saying that, regarding energy efficiency, Scandinavian shippers are the frontrunners with Norway having already launched the first all-electric ferry back in 2015, while the shipping giant, Maersk, announced that it plans to go carbon neutral by 2050. This could lead to the development of zero-carbon ships by 2030. However, Maersk's Chief Operating Officer, Søren Toft, mentions that:

By only improving efficiency, the wanted results will not come as fast. These developments must be assisted with decarbonization policies, in order for shipping to adopt carbon neutral fuels.


Challenges ahead

The Global Maritime Forum further poses the question: “Can the maritime industry cut the Gordian knot of decarbonization?” In another report published in association with Marsh and IUMI, the organization finds that shipping industry feels prepared for the eminent energy efficiency measures but that is not the case for other emissions reduction technologies and strategies. Only add to the complexity of the GHG reduction puzzle…

Shipping must step up its efforts to pollute less by adopting a proactive mindset and effective communication; two elements that industry stakeholders and policy makers miss and subsequently block growth and trade while reducing the impacts of climate change.

Indeed, there are eight practical barriers standing in the way of decarbonizing shipping:

  1. Safety and fuel compatibility issues associated with the use of new 0.5% sulphur blends
  2. Uncertainty over the availability of compliant fuels in every port worldwide, a particular challenge for tramp trades
  3. Regulatory uncertainty regarding the rate of emissions reductions that will be pursued by the IMO
  4. Need for funding, as it is a challenge to find first movers (aiming at zero emission) within shipping
  5. Need for more energy to support rising global economic growth and prosperity, along with the need for faster transition to a lower-carbon future, as mentioned by BP in its Energy outlook for 2019
  6. Research and development of zero-CO2 emitting propulsion systems and other technologies which don’t yet exist in a form that can be readily applied to international shipping
  7. Consequences of climate change to several maritime operations (i.e. increased risk of damage to maritime infrastructure, navigational hazards, etc.)
  8. Establishing new navigational routes in the Arctic due to the melting of the polar ice caps

After all, Claus V. Hemmingsen, Vice CEO of A.P. Møller - Mærsk, Denmark states:

Global seaborne trade’s transition to a low-carbon future will propel both technological and business model innovation. The right incentives for accelerated investment into R&D can only come about if we get a global IMO based regulation. We invite stakeholders from the entire maritime spectrum to join us on this new journey.