If shipping was a country, then it would be the sixth worst polluter in the world – comparable to a country the size of Germany. To further put things into context, it is a worse polluter than aviation. It is also a difficult sector to police – it is beyond the jurisdiction (and Paris Agreement carbon calculations) of individual countries.

And it is a difficult sector to turn around, not least because assets – i.e. ships – have a typically long lifetime of 25-30 years. A key part of the problem is that they use “bottom of the barrel” very low quality and cheap fuel oil. The arguably unambitious target set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is to halve CO2 emissions (based on 2008 levels) from shipping by 2050 – in fact, to say it is unambitious is probably a bit unfair when you factor in the expected continued steep growth in traffic.

On the positive side, there has been some progress. CO2 emissions fell 9.6 percent from 2015 to 2018 according to the latest figures from BSR Clean Cargo, based on data from 3200+ ships from 17 of the world’s leading ocean container carriers, representing approximately 80 percent of global containerised shipping.

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Maersk Tankers’ innovative Norsepower rotor sails

Individual companies are innovating, with rotor sails to harness wind and battery energy storage systems. Maersk Tankers installed two Norsepower rotor sails (large, cylindrical mechanical sails that spin to create a pressure differential) on a first vessel, Maersk Pelican, in August 2018. As part of the test, the aggregated total fuel saved from 1 September 2018 to 1 September 2019 was 8.2 percent savings – equivalent to approximately 1400 tonnes of CO2.

A ‘Getting to Zero Coalition’ was launched in September 2019 at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. The coalition’s aim is to have commercially viable deep sea zero emission vessels powered by zero emission fuels in operation by 2030.

GoodFuels

In the mix is GoodFuels, which for the last five years has been seeking to accelerate the uptake of biofuels. Those biofuels are produced from certified feedstock that is labelled a waste or residue, so the claim is there are no direct or indirect land-use issues, no competition with food production or deforestation. It is possible to do more harm than good with biofuels, points out Janne Antonia Erxleben, GoodFuels’ Business Development Manager, so there is an independent sustainability board to oversee this.

Crucially, biofuels require no changes to engines or tanks and can be blended with other fuel. There is a CO2 reduction of up to 90 percent, it eliminates Sulphur (SOx) and reduces Nitrogen (NOx) by around 37 percent and Particulate Matter (PM) by 60 percent.

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Part of the Port of Rotterdam, leading the way with biofuel

What’s not to like? Well, traditionally, the price, if you are a ship operator. However, GoodFuels came up with a bio-residual fuel at the end of 2018 which it claims gets round this. “It kinds of mimics heavy fuel, including the price,” says Erxleben.

Nevertheless, she accepts that it is proving to be a slow transition that needs to be accelerated. Few ports currently have biofuel supplies, although the fuel can be blended in advance and then brought into the ports. Cost is still a factor and a key reason for Rotterdam’s early mover status is the Dutch government’s beneficial subsidy for renewables, including biofuel. She hopes that other EU countries will follow, potentially moving this way as the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) comes into force.

GoodShipping

In response to the continued challenges, GoodFuels created a mechanism, dubbed the GoodShipping programme, for cargo owners (as opposed to ship operators) to decarbonise their ocean freight.

The first step is for the cargo owner to provide an indication of its ocean freight volume, which allows GoodShipping to calculate the current emissions and come up with different options for reducing these with biofuels, based on the company’s budget and sustainable aspirations. An agreement is then made and there will be a calculation of the CO2 impact of the switch to biofuels. Customer agreements will be batched together by GoodShipping and the total volume of committed biofuel will be used by a partner carrier, in a pre-selected port (starting with Rotterdam) and a pre-selected container vessel.

The cargo owner does not need to change its logistical operations but, somewhere, a container ship equivalent to the agreement will use biofuels rather than fossil fuels.

Chocolate maker, Tony’s Chocolonely, was the first to sign up, in October 2017. In September 2018 this company and other cargo shippers, Dopper, Blygold, Magic Marine and Mystic, bunkered the first batch of biofuels into a container vessel that would otherwise have run entirely on fossil fuels. The combined CO2 emissions saving was put at over 40 tonnes, with additional reductions of sulphur, soot and black carbon. This was on Samskip’s 800+ container vessel, ‘Samskip Endeavour’. It normally runs on a combination of fossil fuels such as heavy fuel oil and marine gas oil but was bunkered with 22,000 litres of hydrotreated vegetable oil made from used cooking oil.

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GoodFuels’ Janne Antonia Erxleben

Since then, others to join the programme include Ikea Transport & Logistics Services, and CMA CGM. Working with the Port of Rotterdam, these two commenced a bunkering of GoodFuels’ marine bio-fuel oil on a CMA CGM container vessel, White Shark, on 19th March 2019. To support this type of initiative, Port of Rotterdam has a four-year €5 million fund to stimulate specific projects to reduce CO2 emissions from the global shipping industry.

CMA CGM’s ship, Alexander Von Humbolt, then trialed the biofuel in a blend with conventional fossil-based marine fuels on a North Europe to Asia trip in September and October 2019. This was again with the participation of Ikea Transport & Logistics Services and supported GoodShipping’s incentive scheme. The trial was declared positive.

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Other trials are planned, says Erxleben, but she declines to go into specifics at present except to say an announcement is likely in the next few weeks. Other cargo shippers are interested and she cites the automotive sector as one of the most engaged. “Everyone is kind of looking into how they can reduce the emissions from transportation… there is a lot of value to be able to communicate that products have been shipped in a carbon neutral way.”

The shipping part of transportation constitutes a massive challenge as one of the world’s most polluting and difficult to reach sectors. The biofuel trials and other initiatives are currently only scratching the surface, so the need is now to scale the efforts, aided by legislation, so that the IMO’s targets, at least, can be met.