Briefing brings hope for clarity on GHG strategy

A briefing by the pro-LNG lobby group SEA-LNG this week (24 March) reopened the debate about IMO’s approach to assessing ship emissions under its GHG strategy: is it tank-to-wake or well-to-wake?

It was held to discuss the findings of a report it had commissioned from the Dutch research organisation CE Delft into the availability and costs of liquefied bio methane (LBM) and liquefied synthetic methane (LSM) produced from renewable electricity and, as our earlier news item
noted, the study explores the potential availability and cost of LBM and LSM produced from renewable electricity.

Leading the project was Dagmar Nelissen, senior researcher at CE Delft. As far as LBM is concerned, her research found that the maximum conceivable amount that could be available in both 2030 and 2050 far outstrips even its high-end estimate of maritime energy demand at those times. And that does not include aquatic biomass, which has, in the long run, “the potential to significantly increase the supply,” she said.

As for LSM, however, “for that to be considered a zero-fossil-carbon fuel, it should be produced by means of water electrolysis, using renewable electricity and by combining the resulting hydrogen with CO2 stemming from direct air capture or from a biogenic source,” she said.

Unfortunately, this is an energy-intensive process, making the availability and cost of renewable electricity “key to the competitiveness of the fuels.” And at the moment, “renewable electricity supply is not sufficient to produce enough LSM to cover the total energy demand from maritime shipping.”

This reference to renewable electricity caught my ear. If CE Delft considers that producing fuel using renewable energy is sufficient to classify a fuel as zero-carbon, that is big news because the organisation is overseeing IMO’s fourth GHG study and leading that project is one of the report’s co-authors, Jasper Faber, aviation and maritime specialist manager at CE Delft. So if his organisation believes that emissions during a fuel’s production should be taken into account, it raises my hope that IMO will take the same view when it updates its initial strategy on GHG in 2023.

I raised a question during the briefing based on my understanding that the strategy takes account of emissions from ships themselves – ie, tank-to-wake – rather than well-to-wake, which the SEA-LNG report appears to rely on. But Mr Faber responded by saying that he did not agree with my presumption. IMO’s strategy “is to phase out greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping … and it doesn’t specify in the text of the initial strategy whether the emissions should be well-to-wake or tank-to-wake.”

He is certainly correct in saying that the strategy does not specify how emissions should be assessed, which is what has led to confusion over the strategy, which is felt not just by me. Back in January I drew attention to a submission by the European Commission to the seventh meeting of IMO’s Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships, which would have been in session this week were it not for the coronavirus pandemic.

That submission notes that “existing IMO instruments already refer to the tank-to-propeller approach” and states that “its sole use is not sufficient to assess the possible contribution of alternatives fuels to the sector’s decarbonisation efforts and their overall GHG implications.”

Mr Faber said that a tank-to-wake approach is “untenable” and “could lead to very perverse incentives”. Mr Keller agreed, saying that “you have to look at the whole process a compendium.”

It will be difficult to define the parameters needed for an objective well-to-wake assessment for future fuels, as it will require every bunker stem to have a complete audit trail. But if that is necessary to allow fuels such as methane and LNG to continue to be part of the fuel matrix, it is an effort worth making.

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