Energy Transition and Uncomfortable Questions for Shipping

Cruise Ship Emits Black Smoke

Published Sep 21, 2020 9:20 AM by Greg Atkinson

Late last year I was invited by the Credit Suisse Research Institute (CSRI) in Zürich to participate in meetings related to the energy transition - a term that encompasses the shift away from fossil fuels and towards a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For my part I made a short presentation during which I touched upon some of the challenges shipping faces during this transition and briefly discussed a few solutions we have been working on at Eco Marine Power. Perhaps more importantly though, I was able to gain a better understanding of the global trends in regards to the energy transition, and how shipping is viewed by those outside the industry in terms of the measures being taken to lessen its impact on the environment. During my presentation I also suggested that shipping needed to deal with some uncomfortable questions. That is to say, the discussion needed to move beyond contemplating alternative propulsion technologies, lower carbon fuels & the reduction of emissions, to a deeper reflection about the industry itself. 

For example, should we be examining in detail what type of cargoes are transported by the world’s shipping fleet and how much energy is needed to move these cargoes? Should waste be transported by sea to developing nations for disposal, or should greater investment be made in recycling and waste processing so that wealthy nations can manage their own trash? Should live animals for meat consumption be shipped half way around the planet or should the meat be processed in the country of origin? Should spring water from Europe be sent over 10,000 km to Australia so that consumers have a wider range of bottled water to choose from? Yes I know it gets dry down in the great southern land, but I don’t think bottled spring water is going to drought-proof the parched country of my birth. I am a believer in free markets and trade, but not to the extent that we go out of our way to damage the environment and waste resources.

There are also some uncomfortable questions specifically for the cruise ship sector. In particular, how many floating resorts do we really need and are some of the ships becoming too large? Are cruise ship companies serious about reducing energy consumption, or is greater emphasis placed upon on-board attractions including theme park rides. Bearing that in mind, it’s worth highlighting that:

“On average, one cruise ship emits as much black carbon as 4,200 Euro V heavy-duty trucks operating 100,000 km over one year. Further, cruise ships emit the most BC per unit of fuel they burn: the average cruise ship emits 0.34 kg of BC for every tonne of fuel, compared with 0.26 kg/t for a container ship.” Source: Black Carbon Emissions and Fuel Use in Shipping. ICCT. (2015). 

Furthermore, how many cruise ships should operate in pristine marine environments and should there be a limit on the types and numbers of vessels that can operate in these regions? I admit that the thought of sailing to Antarctica is appealing, but it’s also an experience I accept can be forfeited so that we allow some places on this planet to remain almost untouched by humans.

Just weeks after the CSRI meetings though the first signs of the Covid-19 pandemic were emerging and this has subsequently had a dramatic impact on the cruise shipping sector with essentially most cruises currently being suspended worldwide. Longer term we may see a movement away from very large cruise ships, but as yet it is still too early to say what impact this pandemic will have on this sector and across shipping more generally.

Another question to ponder is - are the right types of ships being built? For example can the expected increase in demand for shipping be met and emissions reductions achieved if we continue to have very large bulk carriers sailing from Australia or Brazil to China full of iron ore and then have them make the return journey empty? Admittedly it would not be easy and also probably quite expensive to build ships capable of carrying bulk cargoes and containers, but maybe it’s something that needs to be considered. Already general purpose cargo ships exist that can do this to some extent, so perhaps more emphasis could be placed on designing and building more ships with this type of capability?

Vessels being built today are generally cost effective in terms of the current business and operating conditions, but in the near future these conditions are likely to be very different. Conceivably ships and shipping at the moment might be priced too low in terms of dealing with the challenges presented by a lower carbon- intensity global economy. On the other hand if costs were to rise, this may disadvantage developing economies that need to be able to competitively export their products or worse still, it may result in some cargoes shifting onto less energy efficient modes of transport including aircraft and trucks. 

Perhaps there’s more that can be done to streamline the ship building industry though. That doesn’t necessarily mean simply closing down shipyards, but rather further consolidation in terms of ship design so that proven energy efficient ship types can be built at lower cost at several shipyards that share a common global design organization. To assist with this class societies though should standardize their design guidelines and perhaps further merges amongst these organizations is also required. 

Another consideration is that ships being built now might in environmental terms, become obsolete in 10 or 20 years. For example could a ship with an open-loop scrubber become a stranded asset due to its environmental impact? At this stage we still don’t know enough about the impact of scrubber discharge water on the marine environment and I have written about this topic before in Open-loop scrubbers, science and the Japan report. Already some ports have banned their use and nobody I’ve discussed this topic with outside shipping thinks they’re a good idea with reactions ranging from disbelief to outrage. Coverage of this topic in the mainstream media also conveys a sense of how they are perceived with articles being entitled: Thousands of ships fitted with ‘cheat devices’ to divert poisonous pollution into sea (The Independent, 25 October 2019) and Shipping companies 'will dodge UN emissions regulations' (Mail Online 1 October 2019).

So how does shipping respond to such concerns? Well in some cases the thinking appears to be that if companies band together in an alliance or association, that somehow their public relations efforts will be able to win over the doubting public. Shipping needs to deal with greenhouse gas emissions & pollution, so there’s not much to be gained by these alliances making comparisons to the airline industry for example or looking for reasons to complain about regulations aimed at reducing emissions or pollution. Associations and alliances may appear effective at churning out press releases and gaining media attention, however for those outside shipping the narratives often being circulated by some of these groups are not only predictable, but also reinforce the view that shipping is unwilling or unable to develop and implement the changes required.

I do however appreciate how frustrating it must be for ship owners to try and manage their businesses over the long term when they are unsure what new regulations, guidelines or taxes etc. might be implemented in the years ahead by a maze of organizations including port authorities, classification societies and governments. The European Union has also recently entered the fray and outlined its own strategy to reduce emissions from the shipping sector.

Certainly though new regulations that are proposed by (or via) the International Maritime Organization (IMO) need to be subjected to scrutiny and this is where I believe some reform is required. My concern is that the process to develop new regulations could be overly influenced by lobby groups whereas a broader range of views especially from the scientific & engineering fields would help maintain confidence in this process. Enforcement of regulations also needs the support of nation states, so this requires the utmost confidence in the procedures leading to the adoption of new regulations. Also key objectives and terms need to be more clearly defined as currently there seems to be no consensus regarding what terms like decarbonisation and zero emissions mean as I have written about previously in The Case for Clarifying Zero Emissions and Decarbonisation.

Overall it became apparent during the CSRI meetings that many of the changes heading towards shipping are going to originate from outside the industry. There were for example discussions dealing with the concept of the circular economy - an economic system that is aimed at encouraging recycling, re-use, sharing, repair, refurbishment, re-manufacturing and the reduction of waste. This circular economy approach could be applied to the shipping sector and it’s also an area where the industry could be viewed as being in a leadership role due to its global influence. A focus on the circular economy for example might affect the design of ships, how they are built, how they are operated and how they are recycled or disposed of.  It’s also a concept that is not dissimilar to sustainable shipping and so there’s work that has already been done and that can be expanded upon.

There are many companies and organisations across shipping working to improve energy efficiency, reduce pollution and lowering GHG emissions. These efforts should be acknowledged, applauded and encouraged so that other companies embrace similar initiatives.  But let’s not confuse the growth in green shipping events, awards and alliances with the actions needed to deal with these challenges.

Certainly the issues discussed in this article also need to be addressed by nation states, other industries and various national and international organizations. They are complex issues and I’m not suggesting that dealing with them will be easy. But they are also areas where shipping can get out in front of the debate and be proactive in suggesting possible solutions. In that way, shipping will not only be able to improve its image but also attract the resources and investment it requires to shift into the emerging low-carbon global economy.

This article was originally published in December 2019 and has been edited for this version in September 2020.

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