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Navigating the Uncertain Future of Green Fuel in Global Shipping Operations

International shipping keeps the global economy afloat, transporting billions of dollars of cargo daily. However, these operations come at a steep environmental cost, as the industry remains one of the largest drivers of human-caused climate change

Biobased diesel and other green fuel alternatives have emerged as a possible solution to reducing the sector’s massive carbon footprint, but widespread adoption isn’t happening quickly enough. Furthermore, the recent EPA ruling on biofuel volume requirements casts uncertainties about the viability of a net-zero transition in global shipping in the coming years. 

What does this mean for the industry? Is there a way to mitigate the increasingly damaging effects of everyday operations?

International Shipping’s Growing Climate Impact 

The commercial shipping sector emits 1 billion tons of CO2 yearly, translating to around 3% of global emissions. However, this figure could go as high as 10% by 2050 if current processes remain unchanged. Getting the industry to net zero in line with global sustainability goals will be a massive challenge, especially as demand for international goods continues to rise. 

As things stand, the primary focus for decarbonizing shipping comes down to the type of fuel used and its associated carbon footprint. Bunker fuels like heavy fuel oil and marine diesel oil are an environmental nightmare, and only by replacing them with cleaner alternatives can the industry take a meaningful step toward a greener future. Many clean shipping fuels already exist, but a full-scale transition can only occur with a government mandate.

The EPA’s Final Renewable Fuels Standards Rule for 2023-2025

On June 21, 2023, the EPA announced its final rule on blending volumes and standards for various biofuels, including biomass-based diesel, cellulosic biofuel and advanced biofuel. Among these options, biomass-based diesel presents the most viability for adoption in the industry. The problem is the EPA capped its volume target at 3.04 and 3.35 billion gallons for 2024 and 2025, respectively. 

Naturally, the news was met with backlash from green fuel advocates, who expected much higher volumes, especially since biobased diesel production already exceeded 3 billion gallons in 2023. The expectation was that the blending volume would continually go up over the next few years to edge closer to established net-zero requirements. 

The announcement was also disappointing to agricultural processing companies who stood to benefit from the anticipated increase in demand for oilseed, fat and grease feedstocks — key ingredients in biofuel production. 

At this point, the prevailing sentiment is that the government needs to do more to promote the widespread production and utilization of green fuels. While the outlook appears bleak, the EPA ruling is not necessarily a negative development. The projected output is falling short, but these estimates are for up to 2025 only. Subsequent years may have much higher figures, especially as the calls to mitigate climate change across all sectors grow louder.

What Needs to Happen to Reach Net-Zero Shipping Emissions?

Transitioning from fossil fuels for shipping operations is the single most important action for decreasing the industry’s emissions. However, it won’t be easy, as currently available alternatives still present significant limitations. For example, many ships now run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), which has a 25% lower CO2 emission than conventional shipping fuels but is a notorious methane emitter. 

Unstable diesel prices, driven by seasonal fluctuations in demand and supply of heating oil, add to the complication. Price instability makes establishing a benchmark for cost-value analyses to justify biofuel production and distribution challenging. If it doesn’t make business sense to switch to green fuels, producers will remain hesitant to make the move. Such a transition isn’t economically feasible at the moment, considering biodiesel costs 70%-130% higher than regular fuels. 

What About Zero-Emissions Fuels? 

Ammonia and hydrogen are the most promising zero-emission alternatives on the market, but scalability remains a key challenge. These fuels have yet to enter the global shipping energy supply line, primarily due to their unique limitations. 

Using ammonia as shipping fuel presents potential safety concerns because of its high toxicity levels. As a highly corrosive agent, it might be unwise to use it to travel across rough seas, especially over long distances. Hydrogen is a promising solution, but it is flammable and must be stored at cryogenic temperatures — two distinct properties that make it unsuitable for lengthy, volatile voyages. 

These safety concerns and the costs of retrofitting the ship to accommodate the fuels and train the crews are deployment barriers. 

Electric battery packs are another excellent zero-emission option, but current systems can only power short-distance travel. The best-case scenario is to use them in combination with other fuels, similar to how hybrid vehicles operate in road transport. 

What Does the Future Hold for Biofuels?

The EPA’s biofuel volume requirements ruling may be regarded as a setback for green fuel adoption, but it’s likely only a temporary bump in the grand scheme of things. Given the increasing clamor for decarbonization and eco-conscious practices sweeping the globe, the future of biofuels looks promising.

Potential growth and market expansion will be the main drivers of the green fuel revolution. Despite the EPA ruling, global demand and use cases of biofuels continue to climb. The International Energy Agency estimates the growth to reach 41 billion liters by 2026, just one year after the coverage period for the current Renewable Fuels Standards Rule. 

Continued technological advancements, such as tailored microorganisms and enhanced feedstock crops, are also essential for widespread biofuel adoption. Effective collaborations between policymakers, researchers and industry stakeholders will drive the transition to a sustainable energy future.

Green Fuel Is the Key to Sustainable Global Shipping Operations

Biomass-based diesel and other clean energy fuels are critical to tackling anthropogenic climate change in international shipping. Current adoption levels aren’t progressing at the expected pace, but it’s only a matter of time. A net-zero shipping industry is possible, and the future may not be as uncertain as it appears.

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Ellie Gabel
Ellie Gabel
Ellie Gabel is a science writer specializing in astronomy and environmental science and is the Associate Editor of Revolutionized. Ellie's love of science stems from reading Richard Dawkins books and her favorite science magazines as a child, where she fell in love with the experiments included in each edition.


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