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Has getting rid of highly polluting High Sea fuel just got nearer?

In 2020, new International Maritime Organization regulations to reduce air pollution from shipping imposed strict limits on the sulphur content of marine fuels. The good news is that as a direct result, overall global emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) have dropped by about 10%, but the shift to low-sulphur shipping fuel has had an additional consequence: all the sulphur particles once contained in ship exhaust fumes seem to have been counteracting some of the warming coming from greenhouse gases—but lowering the sulphur content of marine fuel has weakened the masking effect, effectively giving a boost to warming.

Has getting rid of highly polluting High Sea fuel just got nearer?
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
8 Jan 2024

Which is of course is just the opposite of what we all wanted. It would certainly be against what the EU wants when it says global shipping “spews out 3% of worldwide greenhouse gases (GHG)” or the UN, which wants to slash ocean-vessel emissions in half by 2050. (By the way, scientists have so far decided it is too early to attribute the recent exceptional warming to a reduction in shipping emissions undertaken since 2020).

One way or another, the industry is being asked to adopt cleaner fuels. In the EU’s case, that’s a move away from diesel and more use of liquified natural gas (LNG), which is formed when natural gas (methane) is cooled from gaseous to liquid form, making it 600 times smaller by volume (increasing the temperature turns it back into a gas you can use for propulsion).

But there are alternatives, including ammonia, and a low-carbon liquid fuel called ‘green methanol’ is also a possibly less-polluting substitute fuel for maritime. There are various forms of CH₃OH, from grey to green, but if it is produced renewably and without polluting emissions, it can be classed as synonymous with clean, renewable methanol

‘Fully green methanol fuel is a key way for accomplishing that’

Which makes Maersk’s recent delivery of the first methanol-powered containership, which is now launched as the Laura Maersk, so noteworthy. For one thing, it’s quite a beast. A TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) is a maritime/container ship measure of volume; the sector thinks in units of twenty- or forty-foot-long containers.

Maersk’s new green machine is a 172-meter-long, 2,136 20-foot TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) or 398 40-foot reefer TEU, the boat is built to be able to punch through one-metre-thick sea ice, and can handle a substantial load on her planned Northern Europe and the Bay of Bothnia Baltic shipping route.

And the Laura’s just the start, it seems; the company has a number of such methanol-powered ships on order (estimates vary as to how many). In any case the company is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2040, at least ten years ahead of most other companies in the sector, but even before that wants a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emission intensity from its ocean fleet and a 70% reduction in absolute emissions from its fully controlled terminals by 2030.

Fully green methanol fuel is a key way it sees as accomplishing that. Thus, Maersk (which is, incidentally, is Europe’s 6th most profitable company with 2022 profits of £233,163 per employee) is putting its money where its less-polluting containership fuel mouth is. The firm has publicly committed to spend $1.4 billion on eight large ships that will have the capacity to travel on ‘green’ methanol as well as traditional fuel.

The ships, which will be built by Hyundai Heavy Industries and be able to transport a total  of approximately 16,000 containers, are expected to start operating in early 2024—and so enable the firm to say it will meet is target of reducing its annual carbon dioxide emissions by around 2.3 million tons.

To back all this, Maersk has done its green compliance work for sure, securing ISCC certified green biomethanol status for the ship’s maiden voyage this summer to Northern Europe via the Suez Canal from an outfit called OCI Global. (If you’re not familiar, International Sustainability & Carbon Certification is an international certification system covering bio-based feedstocks and renewables in the energy, food, feed, and chemicals sectors.)

All well and good: compared to conventional fuels like gasoline or diesel, green methanol can cut CO2 emissions by 60-95%. But it’s not a perfect option, being costlier than fossil fuel-produced methanol, is toxic, flammable and potentially explosive; building the ships also cost 10% to 15% more than standard vessels.

And, surprise, surprise, it’s low in sulphur. Which should not be taken as a reason not to use it at all… but we will need to carefully monitor how all this new generation of inarguably more green fuels than the sector has been relying on effects the real world out of the lab, and at scale.

Maybe those folks saying we should go back to sail aren’t that daft after all. What we can be sure of is that this kind of innovation is to be welcomed—and all kinds of new approaches can be expected in its (sorry, we can’t resist the pun) Maersk Laura’s wake.

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