Credit Bash Sarmiento, Author, Bash Sarmiento Writing.
The global shipping industry outputs 3% of the total carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. While that might not seem a lot for such a gigantic industry, it’s about the same as the volume produced by a major developed country. Furthermore, studies have forecasted that the shipping industry will contribute as much as 17% of the total emissions if things remain the same.
Fortunately, the industry as a whole has started taking steps towards sustainability. The International Chamber of Shipping has drafted a plan, which, with the cooperation of governments, will help the industry achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
To help succeed in this endeavor, members of the shipping industry have been launching various sustainability efforts. From sustainable shipping routes for global trades to fully electric vessels, we can see plenty of efforts toward environmental sustainability in the shipping industry today.
What is sustainable shipping?
Sustainable shipping, or green shipping, refers to methods and practices in shipping that have a reduced environmental impact, improve operational efficiency, and increase customer satisfaction. In short, sustainable shipping is beneficial to the environment, the company, and its customers.
The advent of electric ships
The maritime industry is lagging behind land transportation when it comes to shifting to electric, but it has taken large strides recently. Last February 2022, the first crewless, fully electric cargo ship completed its first voyage. The Yara Birkeland, which is 80 meters long and has a deadweight of 3,200 tonnes, completed a journey along the Norwegian coast powered only by lithium-ion batteries and operated by a computer. It’s estimated the Yara Birkeland will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 1,000 tonnes per year. It’s hoped that the fully-automated ship can be used for commercial operations in the coming years.
Even earlier, China has completed a test of its own electric cargo ship in March 2020. The Zhongtiandianyun 001, a 1000-ton capacity cargo ship, is powered by lithium batteries and a supercapacitor with a capacity of 1,458 kWh. In the test, the ship sailed 50 kilometers after charging up for two and a half hours. The ship, along with the charging systems installed along the Yangtze River, is expected to decrease diesel consumption by as much as 20,000 tonnes and lower the emissions of harmful gasses such as oxynitride by over 600 tonnes.
While it will still take some time before the use of electric shipping vessels becomes prevalent, recent achievements show that the industry is on the right track.
Cleaner fuel alternatives
Electric ships are still in infancy, and even when their use becomes widespread, they’ll mostly be used for shorter voyages. For the mega ships that cross oceans, the required batteries would be too bulky and heavy to become viable. Vessels employ a suite of techniques to reduce fuel consumption, but these efforts won’t amount to a lot considering how dirty the fuel they use. This is why it’s important to find cleaner fuel alternatives.
Since powering large vessels with batteries storing electricity isn’t viable, the way to proceed would be to convert electricity into fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells are perfect for this application, but scaling them up for larger-scale use is proving to be difficult. Green hydrogen produced via electrolysis can be mixed with other gases naturally occurring in the atmosphere to create compounds that can be stored and consumed by existing vessel storage technologies. However, these compounds come with their own pros and cons.
Ammonia is the easiest to produce using green hydrogen, but it’s toxic. In the unfortunate event of a spill, ammonia can turn into a vapor cloud that can kill humans and animals.
Methane or e-methane has the advantage of being compatible with existing ship technologies, given that its precursor has been used to fuel ships in the form of liquefied natural gas. However, this advantage means that methane is in itself, a greenhouse gas, and would need to be managed more carefully.
Methanol is the easiest to manage among the three, but it’s also toxic. There are already ships using methanol-burning engines, but they are produced using fossil natural gas. Like the production of e-methane, producing e-methanol would require capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — an expensive process that still needs to be optimized.
Reduction of fuel consumption
With the industry still figuring out cleaner fuel alternatives, the focus at the present is improving efficiency. Better efficiency means less fuel consumed and that means a lesser impact on the environment. There are many ways vessels can maximize efficiency to achieve lower fuel consumption and reduce carbon footprint.
- Slow steaming – running ocean vessels at a lower speed to decrease fuel consumption. It’s become a common practice among shipping lines to save on fuel. It increases voyage time, but it’s effective enough that it’s become important in the industry’s sustainability efforts.
- Better ship hulls – ship hulls have a significant impact on the efficiency of a vessel. They can affect its performance and fuel consumption. By using better-designed ship hulls, the friction between the vessel and the sea can be reduced, optimizing propulsion.
- Route optimization – shipping companies now have access to tools that allow them to predict weather conditions with great accuracy. With the information provided by these tools, companies can plot more optimized routes that allow ships to avoid bad weather conditions to reduce the fuel it requires to complete a voyage.
Like in other industries, environmental sustainability in the shipping industry mostly relies on technological advancements. The widespread use of electric ships, the efficient production of e-fuels, more powerful route planning tools, and better ship designs overall will undoubtedly help the shipping industry achieve its sustainability goals.
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