How the shipping industry can go from a global polluter to a neutral carbon
When the Wind Hunter, a new freighter in development in Japan, begins sailing, more than a dozen massive sails will help it run on wind power. Underwater, large turbines will generate electricity that can be used to make hydrogen on board, so whenever the wind stops blowing, the ship can run on zero-emission hydrogen. .
The ship is one of many new ships aiming to transform the carbon footprint of shipping. Freighters that carry sneakers, cars and bananas across the ocean – sometimes making absurdly long journeys, carrying fish caught in Scotland to China to be filleted, and then back to Scotland to be sold ‘locally’ – are responsible for around 3% of global emissions. (If shipping were a country, it would be the sixth most polluting country in the world, ahead of Germany.)
“We cannot solve the problem of climate change without fear of it,” says Dan Hubbell, marine emissions campaign manager at the Ocean Conservancy. It’s more difficult to switch to renewable energy in a big cargo ship the length of three football fields (and which has to travel thousands of kilometers) than to recharge a car with electricity. The International Maritime Organization does not plan to cut emissions in half until 2050. But the Ocean Conservancy and the nonprofit Pacific Environment recently released a report claiming the industry can go zero emissions much faster. . By 2035, with the right policy push, every ship visiting a U.S. port could eliminate emissions, along with the trucks, trains, and cranes that work in ports.
The industry has made rapid transitions in the past; in the early 1900s, the report says, ships went from coal to diesel within a decade or two. From now on, it is likely that several technologies will be used at the same time. Some ships are likely to run on green hydrogen, which is made from splitting water with renewable electricity. Some will run on hydrogen fuel cells. Some small ships are starting to test for green ammonia, made from air, water and renewable energy, which is easier to manufacture and store than hydrogen. Electric batteries cannot store enough energy for huge ships, but can provide auxiliary power. On some windy roads, small ships revert to more traditional sails.
New fuels present challenges – they cannot store as much energy as the fossil fuels that ships currently rely on, and at the moment they are more expensive. But other changes can help. Some ships are already adding sails for more power, for example, and this is something that could also happen on ships using alternative fuels. “It’s not technology for the future,” says Gavin Allwright, secretary of the UK-based International Windship Association. “This is something happening now.” A dozen ocean-going vessels now have ‘wind assist’ technology, and that number is expected to double this year and again in 2022. Food and agriculture giant Cargill is testing sails on its freighters and could extend it to its entire fleet of hundreds of ships.
If companies are willing to accept slightly slower shipments, it will also make it easier to use wind power and save fuel. Already, it is common for shipments to speed up to their destination and then wait. A ship “could stay there for three weeks without being unloaded,” Allwright explains. “So you rushed out into the ocean, burned hundreds of tons of fuel a day, just to sit there for a week waiting for a slot to come in to unload.” More and more customers are now trying to reduce their own emissions and accept different delivery times because they understand the climate benefits. Other changes to the design and operation of the vessel can also help reduce the amount of energy required, including coatings and air bubbles that help the hull glide more easily through the water.
Although several types of energy are used, wind has certain advantages. “It is delivered straight to the ship without any infrastructure,” says Allwright. “If you have an alternative fuel, you have to build the production facilities, the storage facilities, the transport facilities, the bunkering facilities, but you also have to put storage on board the ship. We go straight to the engine. It’s also free, which is part of a challenge; Investors want to see a continued return on investment after installation, which is why some companies making wind technology are exploring leasing models for their equipment.
Supporters want the United States to set a clean ship standard for every ship arriving at U.S. ports, with a 50% reduction in emissions required by 2025, followed by 80% in 2030 and zero emissions in 2035. The changes would not have been necessary. a climate benefit; air pollution in communities near ports is a major health problem. “It’s also about environmental justice, among other things,” says Hubbell. “Things like bunker fuel produce an inordinate amount of particulate matter, sulfur, and nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution, all of which disproportionately affect, at least here in the United States, low-income communities. income and communities of color. ”