• Climate hub
  • 13 Dec 2021
  • 4 min read

Turning the tide on shipping

By Matt Philp

Shipping presents one of the biggest challenges in global decarbonisation

But new initiatives are making waves, including one called Sparky.

The sustainable shipping initative

Our oceans are vast, but they’re also bustling, with 50,000 cargo ships moving 11 billion tonnes of goods every year. You could power New York City for 60 years on those annual energy needs, and virtually all of it involves high-carbon fossil fuels. For now, shipping accounts for three per cent of global emissions, but the problem is that it’s set to grow even as we decarbonise elsewhere – by 2050, shipping could be responsible for 17 per cent, according to a 2015 report for the European Parliament. Unfortunately, a bit like one of those massive oil tankers, the industry is proving slow to turn around.

An ocean-sized challenge

The 2015 Paris Agreement left the job of curbing plane and ship emissions to their respective industry regulators. In shipping’s case, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has said carbon intensity needs to be cut by 40 per cent by 2030 and 70 per cent by 2050 compared with 2008 levels. Some have decried that as lacking ambition, but it will still be fiendishly complex and expensive. A report by Shell and Deloitte titled ‘All Hands on Deck’ cites such challenges as: a lack of global regulation; the fact that shipping assets have 20-to 40-year lifespans; electric vessels, while seen as viable for inland or short sea routes, aren’t an option for deep-sea shipping, which accounts for the bulk of emissions; the alternatives to existing fuels cost more, have lower energy density and require more storage capacity, and currently aren’t produced at scale.

Breaking the business-as-usual deadlock

Despite the challenge, and the sluggish response in some quarters, 90 per cent of the industry leaders surveyed for ‘All Hands on Deck’ regard decarbonisation as either an important or top priority for their organisations. The report recommended several initial steps to “break the deadlock”, from creating a level playing field of global regulation to cross-sector collaboration on biofuel R&D to encouraging customer demand for low emission shipping. But there’s already some movement happening. Hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels and wind-assisted technology have all been piloted, albeit on small vessels.

Leading the charge

Danish shipping giant Maersk, which has committed to a 60 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 compared with 2008 levels, has evaluated biodiesel, methanol, lignin fuels and ammonia as fuel options. It intends to launch a world-first carbon neutral liner vessel by 2023; has ordered eight large container vessels to operate on green methanol; has invested in one Californian startup making green biomethanol from waste and another that produces electrofuels from direct air capture of CO2; and has launched a carbon-neutral shipping option called Maersk ECO Delivery that uses biodiesel. “Decarbonisation is a strategic imperative for our industry and our company,” says Maersk Media Relations Manager Asia Pacific Bonnie Hui Huang.

New Zealand efforts

In this country, Ports of Auckland has set a target of being emissions free by 2040. In the short to medium term, that involves replacing conventional diesel with renewable diesel as a transition fuel (it has been successfully tested in a pilot boat and tug as well as shore-based uses such as forklifts). Longer term, The Port is looking seriously at green hydrogen, produced and stored onsite, as a power source for heavy machinery that operates around the clock, and has partnered with Japan’s Obayashi Corp to build a hydrogen facility that will also fuel buses and trucks. As well, it is about to take possession of ‘Sparky’, the world’s first full-scale, electric shiphandling tug, which is expected to save approximately 12,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over its planned 25-year lifespan.

"Sparky", world’s first full-scale, electric shiphandling tug
"Sparky", world’s first full-scale, electric shiphandling tug

We’re all in this together

Regarding the decarbonisation task facing the shipping industry, Ports of Auckland General Manager Sustainability Rosie Mercer says it will require the support and engagement of likeminded ports and supply chain partners. Already, The Port has undertaken a couple of feasibility studies into providing shore power at its berths. “It’s hard to get a financial case to stack up, but it would be a great way to support ships to decarbonise while they’re at berth given the fabulous level of clean and renewable energy on our New Zealand grid,” she says.

Rosie Mercer, Ports of Auckland General Manager Sustainability 
Rosie Mercer, Ports of Auckland General Manager Sustainability 

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