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New Study Proposes a Path to Carbon-Free Ocean Transport

By 2035, the ocean cargo transport system could look a whole lot cleaner than it does today.

A new report from the International Transport Forum (ITF) contends that employing the right technologies could make carbon-free ocean shipping possible in the not-too-distant future.

The report, “Decarbonising Maritime Transport By 2035,” examines several paths to reducing global shipping’s CO2 emissions between 82 percent and 95 percent–equal to annual emissions of 185 coal-fired power plants–below the level currently projected for 2035. The business-as-usual scenario has carbon emissions from international shipping increasing 23 percent to 1,090 million tons by 2035 compared to what it was in 2015, the report noted.

Ways to get there

Alternative fuels and renewable energy can deliver much of the required reductions, according to the study. The biofuels available today should be complemented by other natural or synthetic fuels like methanol, ammonia and hydrogen. The uptake of liquid natural gas (LNG)-powered ships has begun and is growing. There are currently 118 LNG-fueled vessels globally, and data on ship orders indicate the fleet is expected to double, growing by another 123 vessels in the next few years, according to the report. CMA CGM has said it plans to launch nine LNG-fueled container ships by 2020.

Wind assistance and electric propulsion have also shown promise for bringing additional reductions to carbon emissions in the shipping sector. The technologies getting the most traction in this area are dynamic kites that can be installed on a ship’s bow to make use of high altitude winds, and vertical rotating cylinders, also called rotors, which harness the propulsive force created by the pressure difference on the cylinder plus the wind direction.

New engineering measures designed to improve ships’ energy efficiency could yield a substantial percentage of the needed reduction in emissions. Options already available include hull design improvements, air lubrication and bulbous bows, which have a hydrodynamic function to create a wave that cancels out the wave normally generated by the ship hull to reduce drag.

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Operational improvements like better ship-to-port coordination, use of larger, more efficient ships and slower ship speeds could also further curb emissions.

From a more overarching perspective, the shift to a more circular economy could further reduce global demand for raw materials and the related transport of goods, as more of the commodities needed for production could be sourced locally from recyclable material.

The report also examined new maritime transportation routes that could open possibilities to significantly reduce the distance traveled between continents. The decrease of the ice extent in the Arctic Sea has changed the perspectives of commercial shipping on the Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage and the Transpolar Sea Route, according to the report.

For ships trading between Northern Europe and Japan, using the Northern Sea Route could reduce voyage distance by 37 percent, while distance reductions from Northern European ports to South Korea are estimated at 31 percent and at 23 percent to China. Regular use of the North-West Passage could reduce the travel distance between North America and large ports in North Eastern Asia by up to 20 percent.

How we’ll get there

For shipping companies looking to lessen their impact on the world, setting an ambitious emissions-reduction target to drive decarbonization of maritime transport, supporting the realization of emissions-reduction targets with comprehensive policy measures and providing smart financial incentives to advance decarbonization, will be key to getting there. For the part of national governments, they should encourage green shipping domestically by supporting research, development and commercial application into zero-carbon technologies. Ports should provide shore power facilities, electric charging systems and bunkering facilities for alternative fuels.

“Certainty about the desirable decarbonization pathway for shipping will help drive change,” Olaf Merk, ports and shipping expert at ITF, said. “Clear guidance from governments is therefore essential to accelerate the transition toward zero-carbon shipping.”

Some of the measures shippers will look to are more expensive than marine propulsion using oil-based fuel because its price doesn’t take into account external effects like climate change, for instance. Part of the path forward will be coming to terms with potential cost increases at the outset.

“Zero-carbon vessels are generally more expensive than conventional vessels,” the report’s executive summary noted. “Retrofitting the latter requires capital that ship-owners often will not invest. Costs will come down with increased uptake of new technologies. Governments can accelerate the commercial viability and technical feasibility of certain measures. Both private and public financial institutions should offer additional financial tools and incentives to smooth the path to decarbonization.”

Despite the cost concerns, technological innovation creates business opportunities around zero-carbon shipping, which can be a source for green jobs, especially in emerging economies.

“An ambitious absolute target for emissions reduction in the shipping sector will be a strong driver of change,” the study contended. “This study and recent other work demonstrates that such an ambitious emission target is within reach if radical changes are implemented quickly. Strict targets would send an important signal to industry and research that investing in decarbonization is potentially profitable.”

The work for the report was carried out with support from the European Climate Foundation. It noted that zero carbon emissions from shipping by 2035 is one of the proposed levels of ambition in the context of the International Maritime Organization’s “Initial GHG Strategy” due to be agreed upon in 2018.