Shipping has just begun a new journey in fuel choices with the introduction of the global sulphur cap and is facing further changes with the IMO’s ambition to decarbonise shipping.
Most within the industry have accepted that commitment albeit with considerable reservation because for shipowners the means of achieving the objective are out of their hands and lie with technologists and equipment makers. Our industry is not alone in this as the aviation and road transport industries are facing similar pressures.
For shipping, decarbonisation could come about either by burning new types of fuels containing no carbon in engines similar to those in use today or by way of new technologies such as fuel cells running on liquid hydrogen (some fuel cells have a pre-process which releases hydrogen for use in the fuel cell but produces CO2 as a precursor). A third alternative which is currently allowed is by using biofuels which are considered as carbon neutral even though they produce as much CO2 during operation as an engine running on fossil fuels.
In having such a choice it would seem that shipping is actually being treated better than some of the fuel consuming sectors ashore. For road transport, biofuel is treated in the same way as for ships and is actively promoted as a means of reducing CO2. However, this is not a situation that is likely to continue for all time. Several areas of the world are committed to having zero-emission road vehicles as the only permitted choice within a short space of time.
Europe, the UK (now no longer part of the EU) and some states in the US are leading in this area. The UK government has just this week that the deadline for ending the sale of petrol and diesel engined cars and light commercials will be brought forward to 2035 and after this date only zero-emission vehicles may be sold. The ban will also apply to hybrid vehicles which means only purely battery driven or fuel-cell powered vehicles will be permitted.
Because zero-emissions means that no pollutants are permitted, cars will not even have the option of using an ammonia-fuelled internal combustion engine as that combination means NOx is a component of the exhaust. Nor will biofuels be allowed because they produce other pollutants as well as CO2.
Allowing only zero-emission vehicles to be sold will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the biofuel production industry as well as many engine and exhaust component makers. While biofuel may continue to be allowed for other purposes, some of the investors may be put off by the reduction in scale of the market that will result from no new cars and light commercials able to use it being sold after what is a relatively short time span of just 15-20 years.
It is likely that shipping will be among the last industries to affected when new regulations on fuel use are made just as they have been until now. For a time, it would suggest that ship fuel becomes cheaper as there would be less competition from other industries for refinery products. However, a change to purely zero-emission vehicles of all types which will inevitably follow will see refining capacity cut in areas subject to new rules simple because there will be little demand for their products and that could affect shipping.
Whether or not ships would be permitted to use ammonia, which is the latest substance to be considered as the answer to the decarbonisation problem, if a zero-emission ruling is applied remains to be seen but if not then it is only a hydrogen-fuelled future that appears possible.