The shipping industry as a whole has long resisted environmental regulation. The Paris climate agreement of 2015 didn’t address it at all. Lately, however, the industry has set targets for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and tightened restrictions on sulfur emissions.
AP Moller Maersk, a Danish shipping giant, has about a 20% share of the world’s container shipping market.
Somewhere in the world, one of Maersk’s 750 vessels enters a port every 15 minutes. It has taken the lead in reducing emissions, announcing more ambitious goals than the industry as a whole has agreed to.
The shipping industry finally enters the emissions discussion
Ships are the world’s largest machines. Cargo ships have the world’s largest diesel engines. Some of Maersk’s container ships stretch about a quarter mile long.
About 90% of the world’s goods travel by ship. The industry points to emissions per ton of cargo carried per mile traveled. On that basis, ships are the most sustainable form of transportation for goods and commodities.
Today’s shipping relies either on an especially dirty kind of fuel oil or liquified natural gas. The technology to achieve zero emissions doesn’t yet exist. Hydrogen fuel cell, ammonia, and biofuels have promise but so far can’t be scaled up enough for modern container ships.
The shipping industry handles 90% of the world’s goods and produces 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Those emissions help account for about 400,000 premature deaths every year. If it doesn’t find more environmentally friendly fuels, that percentage could rise to 15% by 2050. After all, other industries have already started to reduce their carbon footprint.
The International Maritime Organization finally issued regulations to limit emissions of greenhouse gases at the 2018 climate summit in Katowice, Poland. Its goal is to cut industry emissions in half by 2050. It also revised its standards for sulfur emissions. Instead of a maximum of 3.5% sulfur content, as of 2020 fuels can have no more than 0.5%
Companies can comply either by switching to more expensive fuels or installing scrubbers to remove sulfur from the smokestack.
Either tactic adds so much cost that some shipping companies may be tempted to keep using substandard fuels. One cheater could save as much as $700,000 for a single delivery. The industry needs to find a way to bring down the cost of cleaner operations.
Maersk’s more ambitious goal
At the same Katowice meeting, Maersk announced its intention to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Furthermore, it plans to get there without resorting to carbon offsets.
Some of the large companies that ship around the world already have a commitment to lowering their carbon emissions. None, however, has announced such an ambitious goal.
At present, Maersk annually emits about 36 million metric tons of carbon dioxide alone. At a cost of a billion dollars, it claims it has already reduced emissions per container by 46% since 2007. By 2030, it intends to cut them from its 2008 levels by 60%.
The new regulations could add more than $2 billion to Maersk’s annual fuel bill, compared to a total of $3.37 billion it paid in 2017. That increase doesn’t count what it will spend on research and development.
Maersk’s goal of shipping everything with zero carbon emissions by 2050 will cost billions of dollars. The goal is already breathing down its neck.
Container ships have a useful life of about 20 or 30 years. Therefore, Maersk will need to launch zero-carbon vessels no later than 2030. Besides the technology of building ships to run on not yet developed fuels, Maersk will need to build a new supply chain so that every port it serves can fuel them.
Meanwhile, it has started experiments that, if successful, can nibble around the edges of the problem.
An experiment with biofuel
In March 2019, Mette Maersk, one of the company’s largest container ships, started on a round trip from Rotterdam to Shanghai.
It only deserves attention for testing a blend of 20% new biofuel made from wastes. The 25,000 nautical mile trip should keep 1.5 million kilograms of CO2 out of the environment. It takes 200 households a year to emit that much.
Biofuel at best can have only a small effect on the CO2 emitted by burning fuel oil. Maersk doesn’t expect it to be more than a short- or medium-term solution. So it is also experimenting with such alternative fuels as hydrogen fuel cells, ammonia, and electric batteries. Because of the short life of rechargeable batteries, they can only work for short trips that stay close to the coast.
An experiment with wind power
Another innovation relies on wind power. Not old-fashioned sails, but Flettner rotors. The technology dates from the 1920s.
So far, experiments with it have disappointed. Either the rotors cost too much or failed to yield the expected savings on fuel. But like vertical axis wind turbines, people keep experimenting with them.
So Maersk is taking part in a joint venture with Royal Dutch Shell, Norsepower, and the Energies Technology Institute.
Initial tests of the rotors looked promising, so Maersk installed them on one of its ships. It started operating in September 2018. Maersk will collect data on its operation through 2019 and evaluate it.
The new international emissions standards have already started to raise the cost of fuel by more than 30%. Fuel constitutes 60% of Maersk’s operating cost, and the rotors promise potential to cut fuel consumption by 7% to 10%.
If the rotors prove technologically and economically viable, Maersk might install them on about 80 of its tankers.
At best, biofuel blends and Flettner rotors can only make a dent in Maersk’s emissions. Sometime soon, the company will have to test some entirely new way to move a container ship at a reasonable speed.
Can Maersk deliver? Not all observers think so. But at least it’s trying, and the industry as a whole has stopped dragging its feet.
At COP24, the shipping giant Maersk is leading the way to zero emissions / Kate Wheeling, Pacific Standard. December 7, 2018.
Giant shipper bets big on ending its carbon emissions. Will it pay off? / Camilla Domonoske, NPR. July 15, 2019
How the world’s biggest shipping company plans to cut emissions / Christian Wienberg, Bloomberg. March 22, 2019
Maersk sees fuel bill soaring by $2 billion from 2020 rules / Jack Wittels, Transport Topics. August 29, 2018
Maersk tanker tests wind power to cut soaring fuel costs / Costas Paris, Wall Street Journal. August 30, 2018
Sulphur 2020 – cutting sulphur oxide emissions / International Maritime Organization. 2019
Maersk Laust. Public domain by Bernard Spragg. NZ
Port of Shanghai. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Maersk Olga. Some rights reserved by Glen
Shipping container. Some rights reserved by Matthew Paul Argall
E-Ship 1. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons