As environmental concerns become increasingly pressing for governments and businesses alike, the shipping industry is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint. In August 2021 Danish shipping company Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping line, announced that it had invested $1.4bn in eight new vessels to be powered by methanol, rather than oil-based fuels. The ships, expected to be delivered in 2024, represent 3% of the company’s container capacity. They will replace older ships and are expected to save up to 1m tonnes of CO per year. Under the terms of the deal with South Korean manufacturer Hyundai Heavy Industries, Maersk has the option to secure four more ships in 2025.

The decision represents the latest step in Maersk’s efforts to reduce its environmental footprint. In February 2021 the firm said that its new-build vessels would be able to use carbon-neutral fuels, and that a smaller container vessel capable of running on clean versions of methanol were expected to be operational by 2023.

Reforms Continue

In a similar vein, in early 2021 Belgian shipping company Euronav finalised an order for two ships capable of running on ammonia or liquefied natural gas, before announcing the establishment of a programme to speed up the rollout of tankers that can be powered by dual-fuel ammonia systems.

Experimentation with green transport technologies is also taking place in industries that rely heavily on maritime transport. In October 2020 US agricultural firm Cargill, one of the world’s largest charterers of ships and tankers, announced that it was working on a plan to fit wind sails to its 600-strong fleet in order to reduce carbon emissions. The company said the sails will help to reduce carbon emissions by up to 30%, with a dry bulk vessel set to run a test sail in late 2023 Meanwhile, energy major Shell launched a feasibility study in April 2021 to trial the use of hydrogen fuel cells for ships in Singapore, the first such move for the firm.

Lower Impact

These efforts to improve fleet efficiency come amid growing awareness of the shipping industry’s environmental footprint. With around 90% of the world’s trade transported by sea, the sector accounts for 2.9% of global carbon emissions, according to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN body. The IMO, which hopes to halve the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions from 2008 levels by 2050, implemented rules in 2020 that reduced the maximum sulphur content in marine fuel from 3.5% to 0.5%. This change resulted in a 70% reduction in total shipping-related sulphur oxide emissions.

Industry bodies such as Europe-based Transport & Environment have outlined ways in which shipping companies could reduce their environmental impact. These include engine improvements, propeller optimisation, and the use of zero-carbon fuels such as e-hydrogen and e-ammonia. Another solution is speed limits for large container vessels. According to a 2019 report compiled by Transport & Environment and environmental group Seas at Risk, a 20% reduction in the speed of ships could cut sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions by 24%, as well as reduce underwater noise by 66% and minimise the risk of colliding with whales by 78%.

While measurable progress is being made, there are hurdles to overcome in order for the sector to meet such ambitious targets. One relates to the supply of alternative fuels, with Maersk noting that despite its planned rollout of vessels powered by carbon-neutral methanol, sourcing sufficient supply of the fuel may take time. “Sourcing an adequate amount of carbon-neutral methanol from day one in service will be challenging, as it requires a significant production ramp-up of proper carbon-neutral methanol production,” a company statement in international media noted.

Another hurdle is cost. While the kind of extensive engineering retrofits being undertaken by Maersk and others can lead to meaningful efficiency gains, they are unaffordable for most companies at present, meaning that only the largest firms in the world may be capable of carrying them out until these dynamics change.