Decarbonisation by 2050 is possible, finds report

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Source: Vessel Performance Optimization

CO2 emissions from transport including shipping could reach zero by 2050 without radical changes in technology, finds a new report by The Energy Transitions Commission (ETC).

According to the report, Mission Possible, which draws upon a set of analyses carried out by Material Economics, McKinsey & Company, University Maritime Advisory Services and SYSTEMIQ, reducing demand for carbon-intensive products & services, improving energy efficiency, and deploying decarbonisation technologies across are the three main ways to cut emissions drastically over the next few decades.

Using renewable energy such as hydrogen fuel, biodiesel, ammonia, and batteries would result in 100 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions, while fleet management and voyage plan optimisation could cut CO2 emissions by 5 per cent. Use of gas is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by 10 per cent. Estimates suggest that improving vessel design could save energy and reduce the cost of switching to a new fuel. Improved hull shape and materials, larger ships, drag reductions, hotel-load savings, and better engines and propulsors, including wind-assisted propulsion, combined with technology breakthroughs could deliver overall efficiency improvements of 30-55 per cent.

With container traffic expected to increase by 243 per cent by 2050 according to the International Transport Forum freight model MTEU, reducing shipping’s fuel consumption is vital if the industry is to work towards achieving zero emissions. The IMO has already set out a 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 from 2008 levels, however, the latest report finds zero emission shipping by 2050-2060 is possible with current technologies and fuels available.

Batteries and alternative fuels

Batteries or hydrogen energy storage will play a key role in short distance shipping, but a major breakthrough in battery density will be required for zero emissions shipping by 2050. Battery density improvement of 2 to 3 times would make battery electric vehicles dominant for short-sea shipping, while battery charging speed and life will be more important than further cost reductions in batteries themselves.

Battery density for long-distance shipping would require an improvement of 5 to 10 times to make electrification feasible. This would require fundamental changes in battery chemistry. It is expected that significant progress on battery capacity will be made within the next 10 years.

Until then, shipping will rely on ammonia or biodiesels in existing engines. These fuels will be more expensive than existing fossil fuels, meaning that decarbonisation could cost US$150-350 for shipping, although technological progress and economies of scale could reduce these costs over time.

“Drop-in” fuels which can be used in existing engines for long-distance transport are favourable because of the long lifetime of ships’ engines. This creates a strong incentive to find a “drop-in” alternative to heavy fuel oil/marine diesel oil (HFO/ MDO). Moderate adaptation of engines is required to permit use of a wide range of alternative fuels.

UMAS and Lloyds Register suggest that in the long-distance bulk carrier, tanker, and containerships segments, the most likely route forward is to use new low carbon fuels in existing engines. Biodiesel, although likely to be limited by scarce sustainable supply of biomass, and ammonia based on zero-carbon hydrogen, will be the two preferred low carbon fuels.

Presently, a Dutch consortium including Yara is testing ammonia to establish its potential for use in the maritime industry. The two-year project is carrying out theoretical and laboratory work, which will result in a pilot-scale demonstration of the “the technical feasibility and cost effectiveness of an ammonia marine tanker fuelled by its own cargo.” The project will consider the safety of ammonia in bunkering, storage, consumption and leakage/failure. Mission Possible states that “the outcome of this research project will be crucial for the adoption of full-scale ammonia fuels in the shipping industry.”


Ships’ current engines could use liquefied natural gas (LNG) with minimal adaptation, states the report. Some therefore see LNG playing a significant role as a transition fuel. However, replacing HFO and MDO with LNG will only deliver emissions reductions of 12 to 9 per cent, if considering methane slip as a GHG.

The Mission Possible authors state that “it is important to ensure that LNG developments are thought through so as to enable a shift to truly zero-carbon emissions options as soon as they are available (most probably in the mid-to-late 2030s), possibly by ensuring that gas infrastructure is built with the intent of repurposing it for hydrogen later on.”

If large quantities of sustainable biogas could be produced a price lower than ammonia or biodiesel, the case for LNG as a transitional fuel in shipping would be strengthened.

Cost of decarbonisation

According to the report, decarbonising shipping with zero carbon fuels in existing engines would require no major incremental capital investment.

However, switching to biofuels or ammonia would be significant, possibly increasing voyage costs by as much as 120 per cent, with an implied abatement cost of around US$350 per tonne of CO2 saved.

Ammonia could be made using hydrogen produced from electricity, which would cause the cost to fall with the price of renewable electricity. If electricity was available at US$20/MWh and hydrogen costing US$5c/kWh, using ammonia in a ship engine instead of HFO/MTO would increase voyage costs by around 50 per cent, with an implied abatement cost of around US$150 per tonne of CO2 saved.

Major challenges to decarbonisation

The major challenge to decarbonisation is the lack of commercially ready technologies. Accelerating development and scaling deployment of key technologies is vital.

Furthermore, many routes of decarbonisation will entail a net cost so market forces alone will not drive progress. The report suggests that strong policies combining regulations and support must create incentives for rapid decarbonisation.

One of the major problems, finds Mission Possible, is creating strong financial incentives to “trigger the search for optimal decarbonisation pathways without imposing a disproportionate burden on sectors for which full decarbonisation technologies are not yet available.”

Furthermore, current innovation systems are poorly connected and there is a lack of coordination between public and private R&D. Shipping is fragmented and incentives are split. According to the report, cost-effective efficiency technologies and circular practices are not easily deployed. Innovative policy should strengthen incentives, for instance regulations imposed at port level or obligations for materials recycling.

The report suggests that roadmaps to net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, including clear specification of how transitional solutions such as offsets or use of unabated natural gas will be phased out over time, are essential.

Download the full report here.

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