Stopford: CO2 target demands new thinking in technology and trade

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 22 January 2019


Meeting IMO’s 2050 CO2 emissions target could only be achieved by a radical overhaul in technology, global trade and ship operating strategies, believes Dr Martin Stopford, president of Clarkson Research.

He was speaking to invited guests at a roundtable discussion in London last week (17 January; see main photo), where he outlined a package of measures that, together, could meet IMO’s goal of reducing CO2 emissions by at least 50% of their 2008 levels by 2050. That will mean carbon emissions of no more than 470M tonnes per year by that date, he said, which he compared with his estimate that emissions would rise to 3Bn tonnes per year by then if global trade continues to increase at the average rate seen over the past 20 years.

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That would be about six times IMO’s goal, he pointed out, which makes it “a seemingly impossible target when there is no nice and easy new technology sitting on the sidelines for us to look at and apply.” Instead, his solution combines a zero-carbon fuel – hydrogen – with reductions in the volumes of cargo carried on larger ships operating at lower speeds.

Shipping “is at the beginning of the end of the oil age,” he said, after decades of relying on “massive engines burning oil that costs very little.” He pointed to the 2013 introduction of Maersk’s Triple-E ships – whose name reflects their claim to be economical and energy efficient and to have environmental benefits – as marking the end of that age. “We’re now in a period when we will slowly withdraw from oil as a fuel,” he said.

As an alternative, “hydrogen looks the best bet at the moment,” he said, but he conceded that it is currently expensive to produce. But if deliveries of hydrogen-fuelled ships – perhaps using fuel cells – could begin in small numbers by 2025, then by 2050 up to half of all ship deliveries could be using non-fossil fuels, he predicted. This would be sufficient to achieve 20% of the CO2 emissions reduction, he estimated.

One of those taking part in the discussion challenged Dr Stopford that, unless excess electricity from, for example, hydropower were used to generate the hydrogen, there would be a considerable amount of CO2 produced during its creation from fossil fuels.

Dr Stopford admitted that he was not familiar with the details of the conversion technology, a point that he conceded was “quite a serious ‘don’t know’,” but ShipInsight understands that there is at least one technique for making hydrogen from liquid hydrocarbons – plasma reforming – that does not result in of CO2 formation.

He also suggested an alternative use for heavy oil, citing a Canadian proposal to use it as a raw material to produce carbon fibre that could be used as an alternative to steel in many applications, he said.

Securing the other 80% reduction needed in CO2 emissions could be achieved through significant changes in world trade and ship operations. Half could be achieved “by being more discriminating about what we carry by sea” and thus reducing the growth in cargo volumes, he said. “Sea transport is as cheap as chips and we use it very wastefully.” Historically, trade has grown at 3.2% per annum and if that could be reduced to 2.2%, “you would get that 3Bn tonnes of carbon footprint down by 40%,” he said.

At present, “we don’t think about the carbon footprint [created by carrying] a tonne of iron ore to China from Australia compared with bringing it from Brazil,” he pointed out. “We don’t put a carbon footprint on each consignment [but] this is something that, in future, the industry will have to look at.”

Ships should also be bigger, especially on short routes, he said. This is already happening in the dry cargo trade, where Supramaxes of up to 60,000dwt are being used where Handymaxes of up to 40,000dwt have been previously used. “That’s very environmentally effective,” Dr Stopford believes. In the tanker trades, he suggested increasing ship capacities by around 50,000dwt and argued that the benefit from adding that tonnage to a 30,000dwt tanker is much greater in relative terms than adding the same amount to a 300,000dwt vessel.

A final reduction in carbon emissions could be secured by reducing speed, he said. Although the world fleet already operates at a typical speed of 12kts, if this were reduced to 10kts “you will save the better part of 40% of your carbon footprint,” he said. He dismissed suggestions that this might not be a safe operational speed by saying that, “for the first 50 years of steam, most ships were designed for 10kts.” Faster speeds became common with the advent of cheap oil which has meant that “for the past 50 years, you might as well go as fast as you like because the bunkers cost only about 20% of the cost of the ship.” That is no longer the case, he said.

Asked about the carbon footprint of building the additional ships needed to maintain capacity if speeds were reduced, Dr Stopford said that he had not made that specific calculation but he had run the scenario through a mathematical model that “I’ve used for years [and] I’m fairly sure [the prediction] is in the ballpark.”

Underpinning these recommendations was a plea for better use of technology and management support so that the world’s 60,000 ships last longer. But “one of the great challenges” is persuading operators to use “decent digital systems” such as condition-based maintenance techniques using data monitoring. “The people who make those systems are finding it a tough sell,” he said.

He blamed accounting practices for this, saying that “most companies’ financial systems don’t measure things that don’t happen.” So if a ship breaks down, the cost to the company of its repairs and off-hire losses “goes on the bottom line”. But “if you buy a condition-based maintenance system so the ship doesn’t break down, there’s nothing on the bottom line so the finance director doesn’t see the benefit.”

Management accounting systems are set up to measure physical costs and revenues, he said, but “we should be measuring added value.”

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