The carbon decisions that will outlive us

Sofia Fürstenberg Stott

Sofia Fürstenberg Stott · 06 December 2019

Fürstenberg Maritime Advisory


We live in very exciting times, perhaps more exciting than we would like them to be. As science provide increasing amounts of disturbing evidence that the world is crumbling under human impact, we are faced with the most crippling challenges mankind yet has seen; we need to find ways to live our lives sustainably, to develop the world sustainably, to do business sustainably.

The shipping industry is so far the only sector which has jointly agreed on a common target; that by 2050, the carbon footprint of international shipping shall be reduced by half. While this has been a remarkable catalyst for decarbonisation initiatives across the shipping ecosystem, with the initiation of e.g. innovative policy programs, generous investment schemes and pioneering finance mechanisms, it has also catapulted initiatives which may eventually do more harm than good, and which could be avoided should the shipping community speed up to bridge their current knowledge gaps.

One recent unfortunate example is the announcement by one of the major cruise liners to go carbon-neutral from 2020 through the use of Blue Carbon credits. While it is great to see the increased attention and concern over the sustainability impact their business is causing, the initiative is misleading. Restoring mangroves and planting seagrass are all very good initiatives, and coastal ecosystems are very important carbon sinks, but call it what it is, don’t pretend it is also permanently removing CO2 from circulation. Because it doesn’t. First of all, there is not enough carbon budget left to use nature-based systems (like mangroves) to offset emissions and also reach the 1.5C temperature increase target.

Second, the MRV uncertainties for blue carbon offsets are at such grand scale; the complexity of interdependencies are so massive, that the benefits are very difficult to prove. Carbon flows within the highly variable environment in the coastal zone are very difficult to measure, particularly in developing countries, so estimates of carbon sequestration are highly uncertain. In addition, it is very difficult to determine which emissions and removals are natural and which are anthropogenic. For instance, land erosion, sea level rise and warmer oceans can make it very difficult for that newly planted mangrove to survive, or the destruction of another mangrove connected within the same ecosystem, can impact the health of the specific carbon offsetting project. Second, carbon sequestration is often not the best way to help; there are numerous other ecosystem services more important for local communities: food, livelihoods, construction materials and coastal protection provide essential life support services. Blue carbon offsetting is not decarbonisation. It’s charity.

It is not just within the shipping sector itself, where knowledge gaps need urgent mitigation. The general community needs an intensive course in elementary chemistry. There are still many who react with skepticism, when they are met with the news that 1 ton of fuel oil releases more than 3 ton CO2 to the atmosphere upon combustion. “How can that be possible” they ask. “And CO2 does hardly weigh anything!” They also react with positive curiosity when they hear that shipping can now operate on natural gas. “You hear it in the name”, they say, “natural gas can hardly be dangerous?”. That natural gas is a fossil fuel is - as crazy that may sound - news to many. When you then progress the conversation of carbon in fuel to also include biofuels, ammonia, hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, you have usually lost 99 % of the audience. Hydrogen and ammonia doesn’t even contain any carbon, so how can they have carbon impact? The topic is complicated, and so it also opens up the space for “alternative facts”, a situation we must do all we can to avoid.

Moving forward, the knowledge gap widens as we put more complexity into the pot. The shipping sector is not the only one which needs to decarbonise. So does aviation. So does farming and agriculture. So does the building sector, so does the clothes industry. So does the the larger part of the energy sector. While research is well under way to develop electrical airplanes, aviation will continue to need a liquid fuel for many years to come. Thus, if aviation is to decarbonise, biofuel is probably the most viable opportunity. However, biofuel production competes with food production, as well as the quest of preserving biodiversity, so the resources are by no means plentiful. Is there enough to supply both aviation and shipping with biofuel? Probably not!

Looking at agriculture then: industrial farming is dependent on urea-based fertilisers, essentially produced from fossil methane and air, through the century-old Haber-Bosch process, via ammonia. This is the same ammonia currently being eyeballed by shipping, as a future non-carbon fuel. Ammonia production stands for 2% of global CO2 emissions. Shipping for about 3%. So in order to not just shift the carbon problem over to another fuel, ammonia production needs to become green. However, the proportion of non-fossil ammonia production worldwide is currently minuscule, and is obviously being grabbed by its prime customer, agriculture. It’s positive that the shipping sector is exploring supply chains for ammonia, but it has to be done looking across industries: The scaling of green ammonia production to meet any decent proportion of either of these industries will take several decades.

We must now move into action, and with our eyes widely open. Shipping cannot be looked at in isolation, when planning for, and building a new fuel infrastructure, free from fossil carbon. It has to collaborate across larger industry sectors, identifying mutual win-wins and acceptable losses.

We must also invest in our leaders to help us navigate this transformational shift with foresight, competence and positivism. Yes, positivism is greatly needed. Because the future does look gloomy, listening to all the reports of how we continue to fail taking care of this planet, and how we soon have reached global ecological tipping points. People get exhausted from the climate crisis, and they need to hear positive stories too. And indeed a lot of good things are happening too. The urgency to mitigate climate change has reached every policy-maker’s table. We have better tools and models than ever before, to monitor progress and evaluate what works. And we have started to mobilise entire value chains, and entire eco-systems of value chains, to progress on the trajectory towards sustainable decarbonisation.

We truly live in exciting times. There will be a lot of fundamental, structural change coming our way in the decades to come. The opportunity for innovation, and the opportunity for impact, has never been larger.

I look forward to the journey.

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