The Next Shipping Revolution – Zero Emission Ships

The Next Shipping Revolution – Zero Emission Ships

The shipping world has been marked by significant milestones over the centuries. It is enough to recall the change from wood to iron, from sail to steam, from coal to oil, and, in our lifetime, from break bulk to containerisation. Each of these milestones was a logical step forward born of necessity: the depletion of forests and the limitations of timber for larger ships; the versatility of steam engines over sail, the cleanliness of oil bunkering compared to coal, and the need for intermodal cargo delivery by container instead of crates and boxes. These changes revolutionised shipping because operators rose to the occasion by liaising with inventors, shipbuilders and engineers. Shipping companies made globalisation possible by moving raw materials and finished goods across the oceans, cheaply and efficiently.

While the downsides of globalisation were widely known, it was the reality of climate change that stimulated serious soul searching and desire for action by the various players that make up the shipping world. In 2016 the Paris Agreement committed countries to reduce greenhouse emissions by 40% based on 1990 figures. Shipping companies are partly responsible for the effect this is having on the world`s oceans. Ships account for 2.2% to 3% of global CO2 emissions and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is introducing gradual targets leading towards this goal. In January 2020 ships must start using marine fuel with much reduced sulphur content. The IMO is also actively supporting the use of alternative fuels. The target for 2050 is to halve CO2 emissions from 2008 levels.

The current situation makes sober reading: higher seawater levels; plastic pollution; depleted fish stocks; the transmission of invasive species by ballast water; the migration of fish to warmer seas; crumbling ice sheets; toxic algae blooms, depleted coral reefs, and higher surface temperatures that limit the oceans` ability to absorb CO2. Low-lying islands and cities risk flooding and possible extinction. The force of more powerful tropical storms threaten countries and seafarers, whose ships risk being overwhelmed, damaged and sunk.

There is now the realisation that no enterprise can act in isolation if carbon emission mitigation is to succeed. A grand coalition has been formed; the Getting to Zero Coalition (GZC) is an alliance of the Global Maritime Forum, the Friends of Ocean Action and the World Economic Forum. The initiative was presented at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in the second week of September. The coalition comprises major stakeholders from the maritime, energy, infrastructure and banking sectors. The status quo is no longer acceptable as emissions are expected to grow between 50% and 250% by 2050. The GZC plans to have ships and marine fuels with zero carbon emissions by 2030. Since ships generally have a twenty-year lifespan, 2030 is the lead year for such ships to enter service. Several governments and leading European ports have joined the coalition. The initiative will stimulate research and investment in clean, zero emission renewable fuels.  The shipping industry will not achieve these goals in isolation; it will be joined by aviation, heavy duty road haulage, aluminium, chemicals, iron and steel, cement and concrete.

There is a sense that healthy oceans benefit humankind and that doing nothing or very little is no longer an option. The CEO of Maersk avers that energy efficiency has reduced CO2 emissions per TEU they carry across the oceans by more than a third; this has stabilised, not eliminated emissions. The next step is to adapt engines to burn clean fuels, something that will only succeed through mutual collaboration. The goal is to have zero emission ships on the world`s oceans by the beginning of the next century; if this is achieved earlier, so much the better.