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 ordered eight new vessels from South Korean manufacturer Hyundai Heavy Industries to be powered by methanol, rather than oil-based fuels. Under the terms of the deal, Maersk exercised its option to secure four more ships in January 2022 and ordered six additional ships in October that same year, all to be delivered in 2025. Along with another methanol-powered feeder ship expected in 2023, the 19 newbuilds are estimated to save up to 2.3m tonnes of CO per year.

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

Reforms Continue

In a similar vein, the Belgian shipping company Euronav received their first order of two tankers capable of running on ammonia or liquefied natural gas in 2022 and ordered another three in October 2022 to be delivered in the third quarter of 2024.

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 the first vessel to run a test launch later in 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 output 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.