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4 ways to decarbonise shipping industry

The climate change crisis has become a top priority for nations worldwide affecting everyone and all industries and therefore it is no surprise that governments are working to cut carbon emissions wherever possible.

The shipping industry is required to meet emissions and efficiency standards and despite the push to meet these requirements, the shipping industry is still a major contributor to global carbon emissions.

As per the International Maritime Organization, emissions from shipping activities account for about 2.89% of all human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and without any decisive action, it could increase to between 10-13% based on the fact that 80% of world trade is transported by sea, with around 11 billion tons of goods annually transported between 150 countries.

While there is no “silver bullet” to decarbonize the global shipping industry, industry leaders must use methods currently available to reduce the industry’s emissions, while leveraging new technologies and adopting sustainable business practices.

We take a deeper look at some of the ways to decarbonise the shipping industry.

Potential Ways to Decarbonize the Shipping Industry

International shipping companies are exploring various decarbonization strategies and emerging technologies to reduce environmental impacts. Failure to lower shipping industry emissions would make the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 much harder to achieve.

What are some of the options available to help reduce the shipping industry’s carbon emissions?

Alternative Fuels

Transitioning from petroleum-based marine fuel to alternative fuels is a key decarbonization strategy shipping companies must consider. While other energy-efficient measures contribute to decarbonization efforts, these fuels alone can significantly reduce — if not eliminate — carbon emissions.

Some shipping companies already use alternative fuels such as biofuel, liquified natural gas, and hydrogen to power their vessels. These and other alternative fuels like ammonia, hydrogen, and methanol produce significantly fewer emissions than heavy fuel oil and could be fairly popular for large shippers.

The technical feasibility of utilizing alternative fuels is promising, but the real obstacle is cost. Alternative fuels will likely become more widely used, but shippers might initially hesitate to make large investments.

Current supply chain constraints also factor into these decisions. Engines, fuel cells, motors, propulsion systems, and other integral technologies must become more affordable to boost adoption.

Improved Pump/Water Cooling Systems

Certain industrial activities and water production technologies can impact the amount of GHG emissions entering the atmosphere. Because of this, advanced water technologies are emerging to help support the shipping industry’s race to net-zero emissions.

For example, some ships have optimized water cooling systems consisting of pipes, coolers, and pumps that decrease water flow resistance. These systems allow ships to save up to 20% of electric power and reduce fuel consumption by up to 1.5%.

Scrubber Systems or Similar Alternatives

Another helpful technology most commonly used by industrial facilities is a scrubber system. Scrubbers work by removing toxins and other harmful elements from gas to clean up smokestack emissions. Scrubber systems reduce sulfur emissions, improve outdoor air quality and reduce the industry’s adverse effects on the environment

A Netherlands-based company recently created a smaller, more cost-effective alternative to scrubbers using carbon-capturing technology, which stores CO2 in 20-foot batteries onboard.

This alternative system is said to have two CO2 batteries onboard and reportedly reduces carbon emissions by 70%.

Electrified Containership Fleets

So far, industry leaders and researchers have underexplored the potential of electrifying shipping vessels. A recent study from Nature Energy found using electric maritime vessels on international shipping routes less than 1,500 kilometers is an economically viable option.

Electrification would have a minimal impact on shipping capacity. If 40% of global containership traffic was electric, it could lead to a 14% reduction in carbon emissions in the U.S. shipping sector.

The industry might not be ready to switch to electrified fleets but doing so will likely play an increasingly important role in supporting decarbonization initiatives. Some startups are currently experimenting with electric batteries for small ships.

The Road to Decarbonizing Global Shipping

While carbon emission is one of the main emissions, other shipping-related emissions, such as those derived from sulfur oxides and nitrogen also threaten human health as these emissions degrade air quality and could lead to premature deaths.

There is no perfect solution to the shipping industry’s struggle to reduce carbon emissions and change cannot happen overnight. More time, effort, and actions are necessary to make significant adjustments, including the widespread adoption of new technologies.

It will be interesting to see if the industry implements the developments above in the future and if the sector progresses toward decarbonization.

About the Author

Jane Marsh is an environmental journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers all things related to the environment, sustainability, and renewable energy. Jane has been featured on sites like Renewable Energy Magazine, Manufacturing.net, and Nation of Change. When she’s not writing, Jane loves hiking, canoeing, and spending time with her rabbit and birds.


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