World’s first ‘carbon neutral’ ship will rely on dead-end fuel

The Danish shipping giant Maersk announced it will operate the world’s first carbon-neutral cargo vessel by 2023. The company had promised a carbon-neutral container ship by 2030 but now says it will introduce the ship seven years ahead of schedule following pressure from its customers. While welcoming Maersk’s ambition, T&E says the company is betting on the wrong horse by using methanol which may not be sustainable and available in sufficient amounts.

Shipping is responsible for 3.1% of annual global CO2 emissions and is a major source of air pollution because its primary fuel is bunker oil, a by-product of oil refining which makes shipping cheap for the majority of global freight. Batteries are an option for short-sea shipping but not for longer voyages. Responsibility for tackling shipping’s climate impact was handed to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in 1997, but the IMO has been slow in agreeing meaningful measures.

Maersk Line announced in 2018 that it would have a carbon-neutral container ship by 2030, as a first step towards having a fully carbon-neutral fleet by 2050. It now says its medium-sized “feeder” vessel will be in service in two years. It will have the capacity to transport 2,000 20-foot containers and will be powered by “carbon-neutral methanol”.

The company, which is the world’s largest container shipping business, says its biggest challenge may be in finding sufficient supplies of carbon-neutral methanol - bio and synthetic e-methanol - to run the ship. T&E says Maersk is right to be concerned.

T&E’s shipping director Faig Abbasov said: “Maersk clearly wants to present itself as a leader in technological transition for shipping, and we applaud that ambition, but the company is ignoring the basic science. Any new fuel that relies on biofeedstock, such as bio-methanol, is by definition a dead-end as there is simply not enough sustainable biofeedstock to meet the needs of society. 

“The best sustainable and scalable fuels for shipping are green hydrogen and also green ammonia. Both can be produced from green electricity and do not contain carbon molecules and thus avoid CO2 emissions. Maersk seems to be ignoring the basic facts about the limits of biofuels because it wants to get a market position by sounding like the leaders.”

In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Maersk’s head of decarbonisation said the ship was being introduced seven years ahead of schedule “because we can” and because Maersk’s customers have their own requirements to cut emissions from both production processes and supply chains.

A statement from the company’s chief executive Søren Skou said: “Our customers expect us to help them decarbonise their global supply chains, and we are embracing the challenge, working on solving the practical, technical and safety challenges inherent in the carbon-neutral fuels we need in the future. Our ambition to have a carbon-neutral fleet by 2050 was a moonshot when we announced it in 2018. Today we see it as a challenging yet achievable target to reach.”

Abbasov added: “It is good that customer pressure has forced Maersk to act, but we are far from convinced that this is climate progress. Maersk didn’t put much detail in its press release, but we hear its e-methanol is sourced from industrial sources. E-methanol can only be sustainable and scalable if the hydrogen comes from green electricity electrolysis and the CO2 from direct air capture. Here the assumption is that, as the CO2 was originally captured from the atmosphere, it is climate-neutral. So, Maersk’s e-methanol is not genuinely sustainable as it will add more CO2 to the atmosphere.”