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Aiming for zero CO2 emissions in shipping

NOT long ago anybody talking about ships that emitted no carbon dioxide from their engines would have had their sanity questioned.

A couple of weeks ago the reassuringly sane deputy secretary-general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), Simon Bennett, asserted that the ambitious CO2 reduction targets set by the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) for the year 2050 can only be delivered with the global roll-out of zero-CO2 fuels and propulsion systems.

Speaking at the annual Summit of Transport Ministers hosted by the OECD International Transport Forum in Leipzig, he said: "As well as being consistent with the 1.5 degree climate change goal, the IMO targets are far more ambitious than what has so far been agreed for aviation, or indeed the commitments made by governments with respect to the rest of the global economy under the Paris Agreement.

"But the shipping industry greatly welcomes the IMO agreement because it gives us the signal we need to get on with the job of decarbonising the sector completely as soon as possible."

With respect to the IMO goals set for 2050 - a 70 per cent efficiency improvement as an average across the fleet, and a total CO2 cut by the sector of at least 50 per cent by 2050 (regardless of expected growth in maritime trade), Mr Bennett said "these targets can realistically only be achieved with the development and global roll out of genuine zero-CO2 fuels".

"To be clear," he added, "zero-CO2 fuels means radical and as yet unproven technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells using ammonia or methanol, or batteries powered using renewable energy."

Bad news for LNG

His message was not good news for those who see a long-term future for LNG. He explained: "While LNG or biofuels will play an important part in the transition, we only really see these as interim solutions that won't deliver the ambitious targets which IMO has now set for 2050.

"While we are confident new zero-CO2 technologies will eventually deliver, they are not yet fully ready for maritime application, and certainly not yet for deep sea trades."

In other words the shipping industry has been committed to switch to technologies that do not quite exist.

With some degree of understatement, he said: "The development of these new technologies will require co-operation between all relevant stakeholders, particularly shipbuilders, engine manufacturers and classification societies, which are the repositories of the industry's technical knowledge. But when it comes to pure research into new propulsion systems, this has to be facilitated by governments within a framework that needs to be developed by the UN IMO."

However there is some sort of passage plan for sailing to a zero-carbon future. Mr Bennett said: "To kick-start new technologies we also may need to make some compromises. For example, in order to develop hydrogen propulsion systems, and gain experience of the serious technical challenges, we may need to initially permit use of hydrogen that is still derived from fossil feedstock rather than renewables, a technology which is not quite there yet, though probably not insurmountable in the longer term."

The methanol method

There are promising developments being reported. For example, the Methanol Institute, which has an office in Singapore, has drawn attention to a new project which "finds methanol offers immediate environmental benefits and zero-carbon pathway for ferries and coastal craft, giving further boost to adoption".

Research undertaken as part of the Sustainable Marine Methanol (SUMMETH) project, concluded that there are no obstacles to the efficient use of methanol in a converted diesel engine and that smaller vessel conversion projects are feasible and cost-effective, with levels of safety that easily meet existing requirements.

It is claimed that switching to methanol would offer immediate environmental benefits, including close to zero sulphur oxide and particulate matter emissions and significantly lower nitrogen oxide emissions compared to conventional marine fuels or biodiesel.

In fact Canada-based Waterfront Shipping has been operating a fleet of seven ocean-going vessels capable of running on methanol for over a year. The company says that the 50,000 deadweight tonne methanol tankers - powered by two-stroke dual-fuel engines capable of running on methanol, fuel oil, marine diesel oil or gas oil - have been operating safely and reliably across the globe.

Methanol looks like being part of the answer to the question of how to decarbonise shipping, but there is an awful long way to go.