Technological progress provides hope for shipping sector to get off fossil fuels

December 20, 2020

This roller-coaster year started with a pandemic threatening to bring global seaborne trade to a standstill and resulted in many ships, especially passenger ships, being chained to the anchor while the world was labouring to “flatten the curve”.

Political processes surrounding the climate debate weren’t uplifting either.  Key climate negotiations at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) were initially delayed, then ended up with greenwashing. The failure by the UN agency was so stark it was explicitly denounced by Laurence Tubiana, the architect of the Paris Climate Agreement, and criticised by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

But  technological developments show that there is hope. In July the European Commission released its Hydrogen Strategy – a blueprint for economic recovery and green technological transition. Among other things, the strategy set a goal to start using hydrogen technologies in shipping in the second half of this decade. This would lay the ground for large-scale deployments in the following decade. 

And despite the looming economic uncertainty, there were important advances within the industry. It all started with the large engine manufacturers, MAN and Wärtsilä, “declaring” a race to deliver the first dual-fuel ammonia engines by 2024. This was followed by one of the world’s largest shipyards, South Korean Daewoo (DSME),  announcing the possibility of commercialising a large ocean-going zero-emission vessel by 2025 using ammonia technology. 

Other announcements were to follow. Two Belgian companies, the shipowner CMB and engine manufacturer ABC, launched the first dual-fuel hydrogen engine, which could power coastal vessels or serve as auxiliary power generators for long-distance shipping. As the cherry on the cake, Danish ferry operator DFDS announced plans to deploy a large zero-emission hydrogen fuel-cell vessel sailing between Oslo and Copenhagen by 2027. Zero-emission ferries are not new; small battery-electric ferries have been sailing in Europe and elsewhere for almost a decade. But the DFDS ferry will  be able to sail more than 1,500 km on a single hydrogen tank while carrying 1,800 passengers and more than 2,000 passenger cars. 

The year ended with the European Commission publishing its Smart and Sustainable Mobility Strategy (SSMS) where it recognised shipping’s climate impact, while reiterating its commitment to include shipping in the EU carbon market and stated the need to deploy alternative marine fuels. The SSMS also set a goal of deploying the first ocean-going zero-emission fuel by 2030. 

The battle is far from won, though, and there is much stormy weather ahead; bogus climate solutions such as biofuels and liquified natural gas (LNG), just to name a few. As a latecomer to the climate debate, shipping has the luxury of learning from the mistakes of other sectors. Technological developments need to be adequately supported by regulation and policy. It  isn’t going to be easy but that’s what makes a good sailor: they can get slowed by the storm but eventually find their way.

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