IMO should offer guidance on its next GHG strategy

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 08 November 2019


Next week will be an important one in the journey towards reducing GHG emissions from ships. The sixth meeting of the MEPC’s Intersessional Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships is due to take place on 11-15 November but since it is a working group and not a committee meeting, it will not be open to the media and I will not be able to report from it.

Some notes on IMO’s website about the organisation’s plans to reduce GHG emissions include a summary of what next week’s meeting and the one after that – which will take place immediately before MEPC 75 at the end of March 2020 – will cover. In addition, I provided some insights last month from the working group’s chairman, Sveinung Oftedal, about the upcoming meeting and IMO’s longer-term strategies.


He had mentioned target dates for revising IMO’s initial strategy on reducing GHG emissions, which regular readers will know is one of my hobbyhorses. Although the revision is not mentioned in the outline of next week’s meeting, its themes give some clues about the direction of travel that the debate is taking.

But it will be 2023 before the next version of the strategy is prepared and I would like to see some indicators now of what it might contain because I believe that some of the work currently being done to develop new fuels will prove to be unnecessary if the strategy changes in the way that I believe it should.

At present, it focuses on emissions from the ship itself, leading to the assumption that only carbon-free fuels can deliver on its long-term goals. This is driving us towards hydrogen and ammonia as two obvious candidate fuels, both of which have significant drawbacks.

Instead, the focus should be on assessing a well-to-wake carbon balance, which would allow some carbon-based fuels, such as biofuels, to be burned by taking account of their genesis as carbon-absorbing plant material as well as their carbon-emitting use as fuel. In summary, I am advocating that the carbon and other emissions produced during a fuel’s production should be assessed in determining how much shipping’s emissions have reduced.

On that basis, hydrogen and ammonia will not be the obvious solutions they currently seem, so if the next iteration of IMO’s GHG strategy is likely to take a broader view, let’s hear about that now before we find, in 2023, that we have been working in a technological backwater.

Rold wingd
Interest in dual-fuel options for VLCCs is a ‘hot topic’, said Rolf Stiefel (photo: ShipInsight)

I found some support for my view at a briefing in London last week (30 October) by senior WinGD executives who were discussing ‘The road to 2050’ with invited guests. As engine developers, the company has an obvious interest in future fuels and it launched three new engines earlier this year: one was the X40DF – a dual-fuel version of its X40-B engine – and the other two were the X82-D and its dual-fuel version, the X82DF.

The dual-fuel models reflect the expected demand for such technologies in segments that have not previously been viewed as prime targets for dual fuel: the X40DF on smaller cargo vessels such as handysize bulkers on tramp trades – where LNG availability is a concern – and the X82DF on VLCCs, Capesize bulkers and large box ships. Until a year ago, there was no interest in fitting dual-fuel engines on VLCCs, Rolf Stiefel, WinGD’s vice president of sales, told me. Now, “it’s a very hot topic.”

LNG, of course, is not a carbon-free fuel and many see it as, at best, an interim fuel or at worst a dead end. To WinGD, however, it is “the major step in the right direction”, its senior emissions and sustainability expert Dr German Weisser told the gathering. That is not only because it has a lower carbon content than traditional fuels, but because it prompted WinGD to develop gas-burning technologies that will form the basis of any future gas-fuelled engines, he said during his presentation.

In the longer term however, “it is clear that there is no way round using carbon-free renewable fuels” to reduce the industry’s GHG footprint “as they [the IMO] envisage it,” Dr Weisser said.

There may be support at IMO for a different approach to GHG reduction, believes Dr German Weisser (photo: ShipInsight)

He told me later that he shared my view that a more holistic approach would be better than simply looking at ship emissions. “I prefer to use the terminology ‘carbon-neutral’,” he said, adding that there may be “a lot of support” in IMO for an approach that is “not necessarily carbon-free but avoids the introduction of new carbon into the biosphere.”

Thomas Werner, WinGD’s engine programme portfolio manager, agreed. “I believe that the IMO has to change its perceptions,” he said to me over canapés and pointed to ammonia as “one of the worst things” because it is toxic, difficult to store and handle and has to be produced by industrial processes because is only available naturally in trace amounts.

It is generally delivered in the form of urea and “if you produce it from solar energy or from renewable energy, that might work,” he said. But energy would be needed on board to convert it back to a gas and he wondered how that would be generated on a carbon-free vessel: “with a windmill on the bridge?” In his view, “there is a lot of excitement [about ammonia] but it’s not thought through.”

During the formal presentations, one guest had asked Dr Weisser whether, despite its drawbacks, ammonia could be used in two-stroke low-speed diesel engines. “That is not something I can confirm right now because we have never tried it,” he replied. In any case, when ammonia burns, it creates NOx, “so we need technologies in place to deal with this additional emission.”

He had also set out some of the difficulties surrounding other potential alternative fuels, such as synthetic methane, which can be made from hydrogen and carbon. The hydrogen could be generated using renewable energy and the carbon extracted from CO2, but where will the CO2 come from? “If it comes from fossil sources, we’re not doing the job,” he said.

Dr Weisser’s remarks have broadened my views on sustainable fuel to encompass more than just its production. “We need to look not only at [whether it is] produced with purely renewable energy; we also need to look at the feedstock,” he said. Is it from biological sources, for example, or sourced from carbon capture and storage schemes? If not, “we are failing in the well-to-wake perspective.”

That puts me back on my hobbyhorse: IMO’s initial strategy would not be concerned about how synthetic methane is produced because even if it were made from all-natural feedstocks that had been processed in a carbon-neutral way, it would be inadmissible because it would yield carbon emissions from the ship. Better, it seems, to burn hydrogen on board that has been created using electricity from a coal-burning power station because it emits only steam from the ship.

This cannot be right and next week’s GHG Working Group provides an opportunity for its delegates to say whether they plan to move towards a wider interpretation of GHG emissions from shipping.

Do you share – or disagree with – my point of view? What is the best way to define and reduce the industry’s GHG emissions? Are you involved in the IMO working group? Email me with your views now.

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