Creating a sustainable maritime industry


Maritime shipping is on a voyage to net zero with battery power, bio-fuels, carbon capture and sails aiming to cut vessel’s carbon emissions. Shipping is one of the most efficient modes of transport and is responsible for moving 90 per cent of trade goods around the world. However while it is less carbon intensive than many other forms of transport it still accounts for three per cent of all global carbon emissions. The maritime industry emits over one billion tons of greenhouse gas every year and now faces a range of regulation aimed at reducing carbon emissions and environmental impact.

The new International Maritime Organisation regulations require ships to slash CO2 emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. The UK government’s Maritime 2050 policy is in the process of being refreshed and re-launched in autumn 2023. The EU ETS emission cap-and-trade system aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by setting a limit on emissions for industries such as shipping, and the EU and planned UK taxonomies will also require the industry to make major changes to the way it operates.

“The maritime industry knows that we have to reduce emissions and there is a lot of talk about synthetic blends, alternative fuels like ethanol and ammonia, and various other methods of decarbonisation,” says Lee Howes, sustainability officer at ferry operator Red Funnel. “Across the industry there are exciting technology and process developments a willingness to change and much positive collaboration, what we need is clarity and certainty in order to plan and implement the changes that are necessary.”

Net zero maritime innovations

Shipping is a ‘hard-to-abate’ sector because it’s prohibitively expensive and technologies are not yet widely available to meaningfully reduce harmful emissions. However there are a range of alternative energy and fuel solutions currently being developed, trialled and rolled out that present positive routes to sustainable shipping.

“I was at a meeting recently about incentivising decarbonisation across the across the sector and a lot of people were saying that the ultimate solution will have to be electric,” Howes says. “Creating synthetic and alternative fuels is an energy intensive process that requires a lot of electrical energy, so why not just short circuit the process and use the electricity?”

The industry is already shaping its path to the future, hybrid vessels are already being used in the industry and P&O will have new double-ended ships coming into use soon in the English Channel. “I think the industry will look towards hybrid at first then transition to full electric,” Howes suggests. “But before this can happen we need to make sure that we’ve got an electricity grid that can support the transition. We will need the shore-side infrastructure and capacity in the grid to serve electric fleets.

“The expected lifetime of a maritime vessel is 25 to 30 years so we need to know what traffic and freight will be like three decades from now. We need to model likely trends and project future demand and fleet requirements before deciding what kind of energy would be best to meet our needs. We have to take into account a range of factors such as the projected increase in EV use because electric vehicles, especially trucks, are a lot bigger and heavier. We must also consider how quickly an electric vessel can be charged.”

While the future looks good for a range of electric-powered transport questions remain over the ability of battery powered engines (or ‘powertrains’) to move heavy loads – and ships.

“We’ve yet to see a battery-powered engine that is strong enough or reliable enough, to move large vessels; that’s why I think a back-up will be needed, at least in the transition stage,” Howes suggests. “Even one of the electric ferries in Scandinavia has got a back-up fossil fuel engine just in case something goes wrong.” The advance of new technology will not just change the way vessels are powered, it could fundamentally change the way vessels are built and operated. “In future, there may be more need for IT and computer engineers onboard than for maritime engineers!”

Rotor sails

UK company Anemoi has developed a wind-powered merchant ship driven by huge funnel-like Flettner rotors, (or ‘rotor sails’). The sails can be installed on new vessels or retrofitted to existing ones. When the wind blows, the rotor sails are driven to spin with on-board energy. Thanks to what’s known as the Magnus effect, the rotor sails propel the ship, giving an additional thrust that reduces net fuel consumption and lowers emissions.

Maritime carbon capture

A new carbon capture solution can trap up to 95 per cent of a ship’s CO2 and exhaust emissions. Climate tech start-up Seabound has partnered with lomarlabs to develop a compact carbon capture device that can be retrofitted into a ship’s engine exhaust at the funnel. The CO2 chemically reacts with pebbles of quicklime which convert into limestone, keeping the CO2 locked in. The limestone pebbles are temporarily stored onboard before the ship returns to port, without any need for energy-intensive CO2 separation, compression, or liquefaction. The pebbles are safe, inert and non-toxic; abundantly available worldwide and reasonably priced.  In port, the limestone pebbles are offloaded and either sold in pure form or turned back into quicklime and CO2, for the quicklime to be reused onboard another vessel and the CO2 sold for utilisation or sequestration. The first shipboard trial is taking place now and the pilot project will run throughout this summer.

Alternative maritime fuels

Methanol is gaining traction as a fuel to deliver a viable route to comply with stricter emission regulations with over 100 methanol-fuelled vessels now on the water or on order however ships that run on methanol still emit CO2.

Liquid natural gas (LNG) emits less than green and blue methanol, but the standard view is that natural gas – and hence fossil-based LNG – should be phased out in a net-zero economy and therefore is a ‘transition fuel’. Synthetically produced LNG (E-LNG) could be part of the fuel mix in future.

Synthetic fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia can drastically reduce carbon emissions in shipping, especially if produced with green electricity (green) or when Carbon Capture and Storage is applied (blue). Carbon emissions can be reduced or even nullified in the case of hydrogen-propelled vessels or ships that run on ammonia, especially when hydrogen needed to produce ammonia is produced with electrolysers that fully run on renewable power (the darkest green hydrogen).

The range of new developments and innovations will drive and accelerate maritime sustainability but industry is wary of change and few companies are willing to be the first to fully embrace a new and un-proven technology or process.

“Right now, despite the many innovations and while the industry is taking major steps forward in sustainability, due to uncertainties around new regulation and green energy, a lot of companies are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach,” observes Howes who has developed a comprehensive ESG strategy for Red Funnel ferries with strict targets to reduce the company’s carbon emissions, in addition to a range of pro-active societal and wider environmental initiatives.

Regulation aims to accelerate change

While many companies delay making major changes, a raft of new regulation is aimed at breaking industry inertia however the pace of change is hampered by the level of complexity involved in new frameworks and standards. Howes admits: “I look at some of the key criteria in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, and I could pin something to every single one of those goals, but the sheer range of issues is such that you need to keep it more focussed in areas where you have direct control and where you can make a visible positive difference.

“The EU ETS is incredibly complex. Any funds that get paid into it aren’t necessarily ring-fenced for people to make any improvements. The American regulation is far more practical and user friendly. With some of these regulations you would need an entire department to service it which is okay for a big multinational but if you’re a smaller operator it’s a massive burden and will become a big part of a company’s workflow.”

New regulation of the financial sector is driving the need for credible sustainability across industry with investment funds and stakeholders now demanding targets, clarity and visible action around net zero.

“Red Funnel has some very proactive shareholders who are very interested in sustainability and want to ensure that we conduct our business responsibly,” Howes says. “Companies must now address new areas of compliance and practical operation that they have not had to face before but it’s not just about today; it’s about what we need to do in future in terms of environment, society and corporate governance. A big part of ESG is identifying and mitigating future risks both environmentally and commercially because sustainability makes a company more resilient and more marketable.

“Maritime sustainability, ESG and profitability can co-exist but stakeholders must accept that a net zero strategy will impact the operation of a business, and companies must be transparent about the impacts, effects, costs and responsibilities involved. The fact is, in coming years, sustainability will be a licence to operate. If you’re not sustainable and you fail to demonstrate that you are, then you will struggle to survive as a business.”

It’s too early to say when shipping will become verifiably sustainable as a common route to zero emissions remains unclear. And it is expensive. But the industry has begun positive efforts to decarbonisation and will need to rely on a multi-pronged approach starting with energy efficiency, if it’s going to make good progress.

Despite the many challenges involved Howes remains optimistic about the industry’s ability to both drive and manage its transition to net zero. “Sustainability in maritime shipping is still very much a matter of ‘known unknowns’ but it certainly makes the industry an exciting place to be on its voyage of discovery.”

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