What it will take to decarbonize maritime transport
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It’s difficult to decarbonize, it’s often forgotten and it matters for more annual carbon emissions than air transport: Sea transport.
Ocean freight may be one of the last things you think of when it comes to the transition to green energy, but the tide is turning – the sector is receiving more attention from businesses and consumers. activists. Notably: at the end of October, nine large companies – including Amazon, IKEA, Michelin and Unilever – announced their intentions fuel all their ships with carbon-free fuels by 2040.
But this trip will be long. The success of decarbonizing shipping will depend on a mix of smart policies, financial incentives and significant technological advancements, experts say. “We can do it, but everyone has to come together,” said Pradeep Venkataraman, senior manager of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, during a roundtable discussion at VERGE 21 in October.
Here are three things you need to know on your way to decarbonizing shipping.
1. Much will depend on the development of green fuels
So how do you power a container ship without diesel, anyway? There are no easy answers at the moment.
Running oil tankers on battery-powered electric technologies is largely out of the question. A few low or zero carbon fuel solutions have reached the top, namely ammonia and hydrogen, but both pose challenges. On the one hand, there are not enough of these renewable fuels available. They are also more expensive and there is little infrastructure to transport and store them. Then there is the challenge of modernizing ships and engines to run on these fuels.
In addition, ammonia and hydrogen are only considered carbonless fuels if they are produced using renewable energies, which this is not at all the case today. The demand for “green” versions of these fuels is certainly growing: the marine ammonia market in the United States could reach 47 million tonnes by 2050, according to the Clean Air Task Force, and could achieve cost parity with fossil fuels Around the same time. The green hydrogen market could be worth $ 300 billion by 2050, according to PwC.
We see cities and ports as truly essential engines for enabling early arrivals.
Trevor Brown, executive director of the Amonia Energy Association, says we could see an ammonia-fueled fleet by 2030, with prototypes coming in the next few years. But even he is not married to the idea that ammonia is the fuel of the future. It could just as easily be hydrogen or methanol – or a mixture of the three, as long as it’s not petroleum.
“If we agree to decarbonize, it doesn’t matter which molecule we use,” Brown said.
2. Tackling the fruits at hand can go a long way
Ocean freight is not just focused on the huge container ships that transport consumer goods across the oceans. There is also a range of tugs and other small support vessels that can – and already are – decarbonized at a much faster rate.
“It’s kind of the fruit at hand; we really have to pick them first,” said Dave Lee, senior account manager at ABB Marine & Ports, also speaking on the VERGE panel. He underlined the San Diego Harbor Map pilot an all-electric tug in 2023.
Venkataraman also sees fruit at hand in another technology: carbon capture on board. Mitsubishi has partnered with Kawasaki develop a system capable of capturing carbon because it is emitted by ships – a sort of stopgap on the road to the complete elimination of these emissions.
In addition, there is a range of cargo handling vehicles in ports that pick up where ships stop. The Port of Los Angeles, for example, plans to phase out emissions from cargo handling equipment by 2030 and is piloting electric and hydrogen fuel cell models.
“We have done everything possible to facilitate the testing and evolution of this technology,” said Chris Cannon, director of environmental management for the port, when I spoke with him after the VERGE event.
3. Cities and ports can enable pioneers
While technology is a major obstacle to decarbonizing shipping, it is not the only one. Money is also a big sticking point in this industry where margins are already tight.
“We need the government to take the first step to prove that these technologies are viable technologies,” Lee said. “The operator of the ship needs that push, needs that certainty.”
If we agree to decarbonize, it doesn’t matter which molecule we use.
Because the industry is so cost sensitive, Lee said the transition to green fuels would not happen quickly enough if left solely to business forces. He wants the US government to decarbonize its own ships and help develop the technology needed to do so.
Alisa Kreynes, program manager for global initiatives at C40 Cities, also said that political incentives will play an important role in accelerating the transition.
“We see cities and ports as really essential engines for enabling early arrivals,” Kreynes said during the VERGE panel. His organization works with ports to define policies, such as air quality regulations or optimized schedules, that motivate ship operators to do better when it comes to sustainability.
Cannon also sees the port of LA as a motivator in the transition of vessel operators to new fuels. “Everyone pushes, and so do we,” Cannon said. He hopes testing new fuel technologies – whether it’s ammonia or hydrogen – will lead to wider adoption and cost parity with fossil fuels.
“We’re not trying to pick winners. We just want to facilitate the development of these technologies,” Cannon said.