Ambition cannot change the laws of physics – or chemistry

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 18 October 2019


Fans of the science fiction series Star Trek will know that the catch phrase of the Enterprise’s Chief Engineer Scotty when asked to achieve the impossible was “I cannae change the laws of physics.” That could quite easily be a response that many engineers involved in shipping might well give today as the decarbonisation campaign ramps up.

Taking carbon out of shipping might be an admirable goal but whether it is possible or not will depend not on shipowners and operators but the engineers and technicians in equipment manufacturing organisations. No matter how ambitious regulators may be, ships must have a reliable source of power on board to move the ship and power its navigation and communication systems.

Star trek shipping

Last month witnessed the establishment of the Getting to Zero Coalition with the declared aim of ‘Accelerating maritime shipping's decarbonisation with the development and deployment of commercially viable deep sea zero emission vessels by 2030’. That is probably even more ambitious than the IMO’s decabonisation mission and probably not realistically achievable.

It is already possible today to build a zero emission ship but it would be a step back in time to do so as it would need to be wind powered and carry almost no electrically-powered navigating equipment except those that could be battery powered. More to the point it would be subject to the vagaries of the weather and currents.

A zero emission vessel such as the Getting to Zero coalition envisage will almost certainly need to be hydrogen powered and the technology to do that seems a very long way off. Shipping has been told that hydrogen powered vessels are just around the corner for well over a decade and aside from a handful of small and low power prototypes, very little has actually emerged.

The latest in the line of announcements is that AIDA Cruise will install a fuel cell on its next newbuilding as part of the Pa-X-ell2 project. Although it has received a fair amount of publicity, details of the power output have not been made public and as the ship will have dual-fuel main engines, it is certain that it will only be for small scale power use on board.

To their credit, the main engine designers and manufacturers are exploring alternative fuels that will work in their engines and reduce carbon emissions. However, it is hard to find anyone in their ranks who forecasts that carbon-free fuels will be in volume use anytime soon.

That means that ships will still be using carbon containing fuels well into the future and even if a powered zero emission vessel is possible by 2030, whether the economics of it will make sense remains to be seen.

Although there is a move for shipping to shake off its dirty image it does appear that the finger pointing at the industry is less and less justified. Shipping, it is said accounts for around 2 – 3% of the world’s carbon emissions putting it higher than Germany if measured in terms of emissions by individual countries.

That may or may not be true, but assuming it is does it really make the industry as dirty as it has been painted? Shipping is a service industry moving goods between nations and ports. But that makes it only part of a supply chain. It was interesting to hear Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s minister for foreign affairs speaking at the UN Climate Conference in late September say that for sea transport, 20% of the emissions come from ships themselves, but the whole industry – the ports, and networks and infrastructure – account for 80%.

The figure of 3% worlds carbon emissions being attributable to shipping has been often quoted but never really analysed. Are ships responsible for the whole 3% or just 20% of that if Kofod’s figures on the split between ships and ports are correct?

More to the point is it fair to aggregate the figure for ships on an industry basis? Some say it is, but how do other industries compare? The global debate in the run up to the UN Climate Conference has seen attention focus on a whole range of previously ignored areas of human activity. For example, a week or so before the conference, Greenpeace was criticising the fashion industry saying it is responsible for some 10% of global carbon emissions and getting worse.

That means fashion is at least three time more ‘dirty’ than shipping is, but there is no international lobbying of that industry in the way that shipping has been targeted. To fashion could be added many more industries and areas of human activity that are less essential to the world’s population than shipping is.

o while we can embrace initiatives such as Getting to Zero we should do so not as apologists for shipping but demonstrating that the industry is not as black as it is painted.

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