The United Kingdom's climate advisory body is recommending the adoption of a "net zero" goal for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, which would include international shipping and a focus on hydrogen as the key technology to achieve emission reduction goals.
The UK Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation, if approved, would put the UK on record as being significantly more aggressive than the multilateral International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) own goal. Already facing a low-sulfur fuel mandate in 2020, the shipping industry is just beginning to gauge how to decarbonize, with slower-steaming already being proposed.
The Union Nations agency last year set a goal of reducing GHG emissions from international shipping by 50 percent by 2050 versus a 2008 baseline. The recommendation comes as the European Union is also considering a more aggressive position compared to the IMO.
Prior recommendations of the UK climate change committee have been adopted, including targeting an 80 percent reduction of GHG emissions by 2050, a goal that excluded international shipping and aviation. UK Environment Minister Michael Gove said he is in favor of that recommendation also being made into law.
The recommendations envision “development of a hydrogen economy for industrial processes, fuelling long distance road freight and shipping, and providing electricity and heating during peak periods,” according to a briefing by communications firm Global Strategic Communications Council. By 2050, the UK would require hydrogen production capacity of a comparable size to its current fleet of gas-fired power stations, the report estimates.
Under the existing Clean Maritime Plan, the UK as of earlier this year is already on record as stating it wants its own domestic shipping sector to be "zero emission." But adoption of the climate change committee’s recommendations would expand this expectation to all international shipping calling at UK ports.
IMO moving foward on decarbonization
The recommendation comes ahead of the May 13-17 74th meeting of the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC74), the main body where shipping decarbonization is being addressed on a multilateral basis. Interim measures called for by 2023 in the GHG emissions strategy agreed upon last year will be discussed at this meeting. The approach of MEPC74 recently led the delegations from France and Greece to propose mandatory slow-steaming on ocean vessels, including container ships, as a way to fulfill that goal.
Shortly thereafter, came the release this week of an “Open letter to IMO Member States supporting mandatory speed measure to reduce shipping emissions,” which had 100 signatories. Although these measures would reduce industry overcapacity, none of the signatories were container carriers, who see such a rule as limiting flexibility and undermining emission goals by requiring deployment of more ships to maintain weekly schedules.
Hydrogen is considered one of a handful of fuel sources with the potential to reduce carbon emissions by the agreed upon amounts, with others being biofuels, batteries, and synthetic fuels such as ammonia.The IMO has identified energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, lower carbon content fuels, and technologies to remove emissions during operations, such as scrubbers being used to reduce sulfur emissions, as the most efficacious ways to achieve its decarbonization goals.
To achieve the 2050 reduction goal of 50 percent, “all pathways are likely to play a part in the future of shipping,” the Global Maritime Forum states in a report.
Yet at the same time, it is still early days in technology development, and currently no fuel type or combination meets shipping’s dual requirement for achieving carbon reduction goals and being economically viable versus today’s cost structure. But according to some, that could change. Industry leaders as surveyed by the forum indicated a high level of uncertainty as to how to achieve emissions goals. And aside from immediate steps such as slow-steaming, executives generally said they felt underprepared when it comes to dealing with decarbonization issues.
“There is no clear pathway, as pathways will depend on where investments are made from a production and infrastructure perspective and mitigation of safety and engineering risks for ship deployment,” Alastair Marsh, CEO of Lloyd’s Register, said in the Global Maritime Forum report.
According to a 2017 Lloyd’s Register study on possibilities for achieving zero-carbon emissions in shipping, “it is reasonable to anticipate that the costs of fuel cells, batteries, and hydrogen storage could all reduce significantly, especially if they become important components of another sector’s decarbonization, or if action taken during shipping’s transition assists with the technology’s development.”
With Maersk Line having committed to full decarbonization of its approximately 640-vessel fleet by 2050 without using offsets, it says the first zero-carbon ship needs to be on the water by 2030 to be on track to reach that goal. Thus, the coming years will be an intensive period of technology development to drive down costs and determine pathways that meet carbon reduction goals with minimal costs to the shipping industry and by extension its customers and its customers’ customers.
If the "net zero" target is adopted by the UK government, it would mean that bunker fuel sales in the UK would progressively transition such that only carbon neutral fuels would be sold at UK ports by 2050. But for those efforts to truly impact on global GHG levels, such standards would have to be adopted worldwide, and that is not the case currently unless the IMO adapts significantly more aggressive goals for shipping.