5 Ways The Shipping Industry Can Reduce Its Carbon Emissions

Shipping Carbon Footprint

Written by TerraPass


Did you know that the last time you made a purchase – whether it was a pair of jeans or a brand-new car – there’s a 90% chance it was transported by a cargo ship?

And while shipping is both the cheapest and least carbon-intensive mode of international transport, the mass-movement of goods doesn’t come without a large – and growing – environmental footprint.

“It has been estimated that just one of these container ships, the length of around six football pitches, can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. The emissions from 15 of these mega-ships match those from all the cars in the world.” Mark Piesing, iNews.co.uk

By the latest official estimates, around 2-3% of global CO2 emissions come from shipping – equivalent to that of Germany – and they’re projected to keep growing 4% every year. And in addition to creating CO2, cargo ships release other harmful pollutants such as nitrous oxide (NOx) and sulfur oxide (SOx), which impact air quality and contribute to global warming.

With growing pressures from governments, regulatory bodies, and consumers, the shipping industry is undergoing a “green revolution” and re-thinking how it can move thousands of tons of cargo across the oceans without adding to global emissions. And, like many climate change solutions, the answers lie in adopting a combination of new measures, ranging from the highly technical – to the incredibly simple.

So, let’s take a look at the top five ways that the shipping industry can reduce its carbon footprint – and how cargo ships are on a path to become much more eco-friendly than they are today.

1) Switch to Cleaner Sources of Fuel

Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce shipping emissions – at least in the short-term – is to use fuels that produce fewer greenhouse gasses and pollutants.

To move so much weight over such long distances, cargo ships require incredible amounts of energy which they source from gigantic fuel reserves. For example, a mid-sized container ship may easily carry more than 2 million gallons of fuel and consume 63,000 gallons a day while at sea.

Until recently, almost all cargo ships relied on low-cost, low-grade “heavy fuel oil” – also known as “bunker fuel” – which is much higher in sulfur content than diesel. And so, not only do cargo ships require phenomenal amounts of fuel – it’s also much worse for the environment.

At the start of 2020, the International Maritime Organization enacted strict new rules for bunker fuel that brought the maximum allowable sulfur content down from 3.5% to just 0.5%. The move is expected to reduce sulfur emissions by 77% – the equivalent of 8.5 million tonnes per year.

There is also a burgeoning demand for biofuels, which can significantly reduce the CO2 emissions by shipping industry vessels without expensive modifications to existing engines. The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) has begun experimenting with biofuel blends – successfully trialing a 10% mix before increasing the amount to 30% – with encouraging results.

“When using such blended fuel, we can expect an estimated 15-20% reduction in absolute CO2 emissions. The potential CO2 reduction in the bio component of these fuels could reach 80-90%, which we will monitor and confirm over time.” Bud Darr, Mediterranean Shipping Company

Biomass-derived fuels are also proving to be a promising option, although the manufacturing of these fuels is often in direct competition with food production. There are also companies creating biofuel from used cooking oil, which can reduce CO2 and sulfur emissions by up to 90%.

While the change to cleaner types of fuel may not happen overnight, it’s encouraging to see a growing interest in accelerating the transition. And as the demand for low-emissions fuels continues to grow, it will hopefully drive further investment into new industries that directly benefit the environment.

2) Embrace Wind Power

wind power turbineSometimes, despite all of our innovative engineering and technological advancements – the most effective solutions are provided by mother nature. And just like the first sailing ships that ever took to the water, today’s global shipping companies are looking to wind power for a cheaper and cleaner way to move goods across the oceans.

A Swedish consortium, including Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, has developed the Oceanbird – a cargo vessel capable of transporting 7,000 cars across the Atlantic using large, 80-meter sails. And while the ship still features small engines to maneuver in and out of harbors, the designers claim that using wind power could reduce the CO2 emissions from ships by up to 90%.

Scheduled for launch in 2024, the Oceanbird’s main drawback is its slower traveling speed; it will take around twelve days to make a journey that normally takes seven. Still, the ship’s creators, such as Jakob Kuttenkeuler from Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, believe that its environmental benefits will far outweigh its limitations. “People are environmentally informed enough now that we think there will be customers willing to put their cars on a ship that goes roughly half as fast as today’s ship, if we can make it carbon neutral.”

3) Transition to Green Hydrogen

One of the most exciting developments in recent times has been the emergence of hydrogen – and particularly green hydrogen – as a method of powering heavy machines such as trucks, planes, and ships.

Using renewable energy sources such as solar and wind to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, green hydrogen holds the potential to create 100% emission-free shipping. However, green hydrogen currently requires 2-4 times the physical space of bunker fuel – meaning ships aren’t able to carry as much cargo.

“The big challenge using hydrogen for deep sea shipping is the cargo volume you would lose to have enough hydrogen stored for long voyages, which could be a commercial killer.” Kasper Søgaard, Head of Research, GMF

Switching to hydrogen also requires shipping companies to replace existing engines with electric motors and hydrogen fuel cells, which, while entirely possible, requires significant capital investment.

But despite the current challenges, green hydrogen looks like it will play a substantial role in reducing the CO2 emissions of the shipping industry – if not become the primary fuel source. A study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that 99% of transpacific voyages in 2015 could have been powered with hydrogen – albeit with some modifications to cargo capacities and shipping routes.

And while green hydrogen is also far more expensive than traditional bunker fuel – by as much as 800% – the costs are set to fall dramatically over the next ten years. A new Australian project plans to create and export green hydrogen to Asia using the world’s largest solar and wind farm, while a project in Saudi Arabia aims to produce 650 tons of green hydrogen a day – enough to power 20,000 buses. There’s even a plant coming to California that claims it will make green hydrogen from plastics and recycled paper at a lower price than using renewable energy.

And so, while it seems that the mass-adoption of green hydrogen may still be a few years away, its potential to reduce shipping carbon emissions is virtually unlimited. With no greenhouse gasses and an energy density powerful enough to drive even the largest cargo ships – it seems it’s just a matter of time before green hydrogen becomes one of the world’s most dominant fuel sources.

4) Utilize Battery Storage

Companies like Tesla may have thrust electric cars into the mainstream, but the flow-on effects of improving battery technology hold significant promise for the shipping industry as well.

Danish shipping company Maersk recently announced the trial of a new 600-kilowatt-hour battery, the size of a shipping container, to reduce the energy demands and emissions of one of its main cargo ships.

“This trial will provide a greater understanding of energy storage that will support Maersk in moving towards further electrification of its fleet and port terminals. Maersk will continue to facilitate, test, and develop low-carbon solutions on our journey to become carbon neutral by 2050.” Søren Toft, COO, Maersk

Another European company, Yara Fertilizer of Norway, is building the world’s first all-electric cargo ship that will transport its products around the country and eliminate 40,000 trips normally made by diesel trucks. While relatively small by current standards, Yara’s electric model can still haul 3,200 tons of cargo over a distance of 30 nautical miles.

The main limitations of today’s lithium batteries are their size and weight; they’re generally too heavy and bulky to power large-scale container ships while leaving enough space for the required cargo. But at least initially, we’re likely to see batteries powering small ships over short distances and continue to gain momentum as batteries becomes smaller, lighter, and cheaper.

And so, while it may not be possible for batteries to power entire cargo ships without a technological breakthrough, it looks as though energy storage – particularly when combined with renewables – will still play a key role in reducing global shipping emissions.

5) Reduce Travel Speeds

Within the myriad of technological advancements being used to reduce shipping emissions, one of the most effective solutions is also one of the simplest: reduce traveling speeds.

This method – officially known as “slow steaming” – refers to powering-down engines to conserve fuel while reducing shipping CO2 emissions in the process. Commercial shipping companies first used slow steaming back in 2007 when the global financial crisis created oversupply and disrupted international trade. And now many countries, including key members of the EU, are proposing to make slow steaming a primary component of carbon-reduction strategies.

“…you can implement it in every ship. There’s no need to retrofit the ships [with new technology], you can do it with existing ships and you can do it now.” Nicolas Urdea, International Maritime Organization

The main reason slow steaming is so effective is that the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are far greater than the change in ship speed. Or, to put it in simpler terms, reducing a ship’s speed by just 10% can reduce its carbon emissions by a staggering 27%.

The drawback of slow steaming is that, as the name suggests, it takes longer to transport items from one location to another. If the shipping industry widely adopts this method, either our goods will take longer to arrive, or more ships will be needed to meet today’s demanding timeframes.

Still, with the shipping industry committing to reducing its emissions by 50% by 2050, slow steaming offers a simple and effective solution – not to mention one that can save millions of dollars in the process.

How Can We All Help to Reduce Our Shipping Emissions?

The cargo ships that transport our daily goods might be hidden from view – but they have a substantial impact on the environment.

Thankfully, there’s a significant amount of time, money, and resources being invested into reducing the global shipping carbon footprint – and maintaining growth without polluting the atmosphere.

And whether you’re an individual or a business, you can also take steps to offset or eliminate the CO2 emissions associated with the transport of your goods. At terrapass, we offer practical and affordable solutions to reduce your personal carbon footprint, such as purchasing offsets to support carbon reduction projects, or buying renewable energy certificates to support America’s transition to clean energy.

And for businesses, we have a carbon footprint shipping calculator that helps you to measure your company’s greenhouse gasses – and restore the balance using certified carbon offsets.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that an effective way to reduce the carbon footprint of the shipping/logistics industry is to reduce the number of items that need to be shipped across the world in the first place. We can all make consumer choices that are better for the environment, and lower the demand for expensive and time-consuming international shipping.

And while globalization has definitely changed our lives for the better, seeking out locally-made goods is not only an effective way to reduce our emissions – it’s great for our local communities as well.

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