Shipping emissions – ambitions and irony

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 16 November 2017


Emissions from shipping are very much in focus this week given that the COP23 talks are taking place in Bonn, Germany. There has been a lot of talk about shipping’s decarbonisation ambitions. Before the talks began ICS issued a statement in which it said the organisation has a vision of zero CO2 emissions from shipping in the second half of the century, adding “We are confident this will be achievable with alternative fuels and new propulsion technologies”. That in itself is a mightily ambitious position although perhaps if some wonderful new technology is waiting to appear then the need for ships to burn hydrocarbons may well disappear. At present the only viable choices would be wind power, nuclear or the oft promised but yet to appear fuel cell. Even a wholesale switch to LNG would not allow for zero emissions but would cut current output by around 25%. Talk of the second half of the century without pinning down a more precise date could indeed allow some time for such a technology to appear. After all, the first motor ship appeared just around 20 years after the first stationary diesel engine. Despite the recently announced LNG-fuelled container ships ordered by CMA CGM, and the conversions of vessels owned by TOTE and Wessels, even the switch to LNG is lagging behind what was predicted less than a decade ago. Oil is clearly still the fuel of choice and present indications are that will continue to be the case for some time yet. Of course efforts to reduce shipping’s emissions should be applauded but some realism is needed to temper the ambition as otherwise shipping may in the future be accused (as it so often is now) of having promised much and delivered little. This week also saw another news item connected with emissions when Guangzhou Shipyard International launched what is being claimed as the world’s first 2,000 tonne electric ship. The 70.5m loa ship is powered by a lithium battery and a super-capacitor, weighing 26 tonnes, and propelled by 2 electric motors. Local Chinese news sources reported that the ship has made major breakthroughs in set of technologies including large capacity e-ship design, shore power connection and quick charge system. Its maximum navigation speed can reach 12.8km per hour and a total of 80km's voyage can be completed with a 2-hour charge. Much is being made of the ship’s environmental credentials and for heavily polluted China it could be an exciting development with applications in many fields. Ironically, the ship will be used to transport coal to power stations on the Pearl River. In Norway where battery power for ships had its main origins, power to charge batteries comes entirely from the country’s hydro-electric generation so is indeed clean. For the Chinese vessel, power to charge the batteries will presumably come from the coal-fired power stations it is serving. Given the efficiency disparity between modern diesel engines and electric generation by coal, the CO2 emissions properly attributable to the ship are probably greater than if it had been provided with a conventional engine.
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