Change and Accepting It Is the Key to a Cleaner Industry

Updated 5 Sep 2019

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Realising the IMO’s ambitions announced at MEPC 73 will depend on a number of factors that support a target of positive net environmental benefits and operational pragmatism. Shipping will probably need to completely change how ships are propelled, how the industry is organised and manned and the commercial impetus behind the industry will have to alter significantly – and that probably means supply chains that are more integrated.

So we need to:

a). Start seeing marine transportation as a part of a global transportation system rather than a discrete activity to be managed separately with all the focus on shipping as a separate market or compliance by ships as individual units.

At the moment shipping is expected to meet environmental regulations as if it exists in isolation. In fact shipping is totally reliant on many external factors, not least demand. The 2020 sulphur cap has highlighted that shipping has no control over the availability of compliant fuels. Another example might be a shipowner who, having installed cold ironing capability across his fleet to reduce air emissions to zero while in port, finds that no port can supply any of the ships with power.

As an industry we will need to make decisions and pass regulations that are considerably more focused on the need to connect ships with the rest of the supply chain, with technology, and with infrastructure onshore.

b). Understand that shipping is integral to society. Shipping has to be more integrated.

We cannot have the world we live in today without ships – shipping literally makes world trade happen and is a key enabler of our global, consumer society. There is no other way to move large amounts of commodities, like iron ore, grain or products like steel and chemicals as well as the things that fill the millions of containers circling the world. But an important question is related to the future demand for commodities and goods. This will play a key role in deciding what shipping needs to look like in future. Will demand continue to grow at an annual average of about 3% per year? And the balance between speed / cost / environmental impact will be an area to address – slower speeds is one avenue to reducing environmental impact but a consequence will be a requirement for more tonnage. Slower speeds will have an impact on supply chains.

Ships are now much more efficient than they were a decade ago – but we are probably approaching the limits of commercially available technology today – unless you are willing to take significant risks or alter the operating model of the industry and, historically, first movers have not been rewarded. And shipowners can only invest in mature technologies that make financial sense. There is not much available – not yet, to really change the model, except at the margins or in specialised trades. Slower voyage speeds and increased operational efficiencies could have a significant impact.

Right now the challenge is 2020 compliance and in terms of new fuels/technology LNG is the only real commercial option available that is reducing local air emissions and putting us on the road to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But of course the dramatic reduction of carbon and GHG emissions being targeted, whilst demand for shipping is expected to grow, ultimately means that ship energy will have to be either derived from, or originate from, renewable sources of energy. Non-fossil fuel sources are just not available right now to provide effective alternatives for total ship energy demands. So it seems likely that a mixture of systems and approaches will take us through a period as we transition to new fuel and energy sources - either with or without the internal combustion engine. Auxiliary energy sources could become commercially more realistic soon with hybrid power sources as we have seen in transitional times with ship propulsion in the past.

So, we could be entering a time of hybridized systems and operational practice, much as when ship propulsion moved from sail to steam. Early steamships had sails; there were paddle steamers with sails; and pure sail survived commercially, if marginally, in some trades until well into the 20th century - by which time motorships were starting to take over from steamships in a process that took 50 years.

We are already seeing hybridization take hold with battery installations, particularly in ferries, talk of hydrogen fueled auxiliary generators, flettner rotor applications and kite and sail related technologies available to provide a share of propulsive energy. We’ll see if these develop commercially to be available and sustainable across the market. Right now we are assessing them for their safety and operational performance.

There are difficulties and obstacles to overcome with any of the technologies. The key issue is incentives. Society will probably get the shipping industry it deserves! Or put another way, shipping can only be a reflection of society. Shipping’s ability to evolve will depend on a commercial and regulatory environment that makes the necessary market and structural changes in support of a newer, cleaner world.

We can see this in our cities today. We know the benefits of electric vehicles to improve city air pollution and yet in big cities change so far is modest – even though there are now real alternatives to move around inside them today. At the moment there is still too much invested in existing technology and infrastructure and not yet enough by way of incentive to drive change. Shipping is going to find it tough to move alone or faster than society makes possible.

Batteries are a promising technology but there are those who say that if electric power generation for charging batteries is produced using fossil fuels, then has the problem just been moved away from the ship? The answer to that question will depend on the relative efficiency and choice of generating fuel.

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