In this blog, Dr Andrew Welfle, based in Tyndall Manchester and part of the national Supergen Bioenergy Hub, looks at the current state of the global shipping sector and how it can look towards decarbonisation through a commitment to the use of biofuels.
- The trade and movement of goods and resources is the engine that drives global economic growth and with it prosperity. Shipping represents the life blood of this process, where over 50,000 ships are key to the movement of around 90% of world trade.
- The growing shipping sector is calculated to be responsible for around 2.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and these are forecast to rise by between 50% and 250% by 2050 as the sector grows to facilitate global trade.
- The shipping sector regards biofuels as a potential pathway to make near-term advances in decarbonising current fleets, as current ships could be rapidly retrofitted and new ships built relatively easily and cost effectively to operate on biofuels.
From a climate change perspective, shipping has been a slippery sector to regulate. Shipping was excluded from the Paris Climate Agreement deals in part because of the difficulties in deciding to which country shipping emissions should be attributed. Therefore without the typical carrot and stick policy mechanisms available to governments for pushing sectors towards decarbonisation, the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) has instead focused on building agreements and working groups between key industry stakeholders to agree on targets and build consensus on the roadmaps for achieving them. The IMO’s Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) is set out to implement improvements in energy efficiency in a number of areas such as in new ship designs, retrofitting and shipping operations, and to work in partnership with stakeholders to share risks and benefits associated with developing, testing and implementing sustainable innovation and technology for both new-build and retrofit of ships.
The ultimate target of the SSI is to reduce CO2 emissions from shipping by 80% by 2050. This is an ambition reflected by the UK government, where in a report commissioned by the Department for Transport (DfT) it has committed to “actively drive the transition to zero emission shipping in its waters, moving faster than competitor countries and international standards to capitalise on economic benefits and be seen as a role model in the field”.
The backbone of the SSI’s decarbonisation plans rely on the emergence of renewable and low-carbon technologies that will be aggressively pursued for new ships built from the mid 2020s, with much hope placed on technologies currently being developed. However if the sector is serious about decarbonisation, it can’t simply wait 10 years for the emergence of a new low-carbon class of ships, and as ships typically have lifetimes exceeding 25 years, current fossil fuel-powered fleets are likely to be active for many years to come.
Benefits of Biofuels
The shipping sector regards biofuels as a potential pathway to make near-term advances in decarbonising current fleets. Current ships could be rapidly retrofitted and new ships built relatively easily and cost effectively to operate on biofuels. Biofuels therefore potentially provide an opportunity to make immediate impacts on the sector and a potential mechanism to bridge the gap until alternative technologies emerge.
The interest of the shipping sector in biofuels comes at a time when multiple sectors are targeting bioenergy as the technology to kick-start their decarbonisation efforts. Whether that is to generate heat or power, produce advanced biochemicals or provide alternative transport fuels for road or aviation, there are common themes that each sector needs to get right if bioenergy is to deliver the genuine reductions in GHG emissions they require.
The supply and sustainability question
Leading questions around the use of bioenergy focus on the choices of biomass resources to use: where will they be sourced and will they be sustainable? One of the great advantages of bioenergy is its flexibility in that bioenergy or biofuels may be generated from any type of organic (biomass) resource using the suite of bioenergy technologies available. Although with multiple sectors targeting bioenergy, the current common answer given by experts is that there is enough biomass but we need to ensure it is used strategically to ensure sustainability. Growth of the bioenergy sector and biomass supply chains needs to be accompanied by robust regulatory frameworks and sustainability criteria to avoid the risk of generating environmental impacts.
Biomass in Shipping
The shipping sector would have some advantages over other biomass demanding sectors in that the primary choice of biomass resource required to produce biofuels for ships is very different from that of sectors such as for heat or power that favour ‘woody’ biomass resource in the form of chips or pellets. Biofuels for shipping may be produced from a broad range of biomass resources from the conversion of organic waste materials such as waste cooking oils, through to specifically produced oil-bearing energy crops such as oilseed rape or sunflowers. There may even be opportunities for the shipping biofuel sector to develop, in collaboration with other transport sectors, a biorefinery, potentially using organic wastes to produce heavy biofuels for shipping, alongside the high-value lighter fuels for aviation with opportunities for road and haulage in between. Shipping and aviation also share similar problems in that they need to refuel at their global destinations and therefore require biofuel at each of these; a global network of biorefinery plants using locally sourced biomass feedstocks would be a solution to this. There will, however, need to be an enforcement of international sustainability standards to ensure the biomass sourced by these plants is sustainable and that biofuels generation will result in the desired reduction in GHG emissions.
An international Approach
Biofuels may provide the stimulus required to move the shipping sector towards decarbonisation, but any ships built or retrofitted now with biofuel technologies would still be operating over the lifetime of the ships, so a commitment to biofuels would be a commitment to sustainable supply chains and bioenergy technologies for many years to come. The shipping sector will need to take these commitments seriously and actors beyond the IMO are needed if the strategy is to be successful. An international approach and buy-in by national governments will be required to ensure the required levels of capital investment are gained, to enforce sustainability criteria for biomass supply chains and to incentivise both the development of the biofuel sector and the transition of new and old shipping fleets towards biofuel technologies.