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Op-Ed: Reducing the Risks of the Maritime Decarbonization Debate

Written by

Heather Ervin

Giulio Tirelli, Business Development Manager at Wärtsilä. (Credit: Wartsila)

By Giulio Tirelli, Business Development Manager at Wärtsilä

The challenge of decarbonizing maritime transport is unprecedented, both in its scale and in its urgency. At COP26 last year, shipping came under greater scrutiny than ever in climate change talks. The importance of these discussions, coupled with the current Covid-19 pandemic and regulatory pressure, has led to a slow but inevitable shift in the mindset of consumers, who are now more interested in environmental governance. , social and corporate.

Here you have the building blocks for transformational change in an industry responsible for around 90% of global trade. This broader social and regulatory context presents an opportunity for decarbonization actors to lead the green transition in shipping.

So what can this global industry do to reach net zero faster, while remaining competitive?

The good news is that we have started to see real progress in terms of increasing ambition. We have seen key players, alongside Wärtsilä, sign the Call to Action for Shipping Decarbonization initiative, which aims for net zero emissions by 2050.

As momentum builds, we can all recognize that there will be no silver bullet to meeting shipping’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets. Add to this the complexity of future fuel lines and the difference in fleet composition, and it is clear that owners, charterers and operators will each have different strategies and requirements.

We believe that the right way to approach marine decarbonization on a larger scale is to reduce the risks of the green transition step by step, which can be done by reducing base load emissions from the immediate term, by focusing on propulsion enhancement technologies or electrification technologies. While sustainable fuels will continue to evolve at a rapid pace, it still won’t be fast enough to replace fossil fuels for most fleets, and will still be quite expensive in the current climate. These fuels are only part of the equation; they inherently bring a high level of complexity, given the associated fuel supply chain and the regulatory frameworks and market acceptance that must develop around them.

Now that the energy transition is underway, investing now in an engine that opens up a wider range of fuel options and possibilities for the future is good insurance indeed. LNG, for example, paves the way for carbon-free fuels and is easy to convert to hydrogen, methanol or ammonia in the future.

However, fuel selection isn’t the only choice owners can make – and they’ll need to think beyond just fuels. Switching to alternative fuels is currently and will remain quite expensive – and a very impactful and equally demanding decision on the part of ship owners. Hence the need to reduce baseline emissions. Many different studies project a range of expected cost differences for various future fuel options. Alternative fuels could lead to higher fuel costs, at least until the corresponding supply chain is fully developed.

Therefore, the right starting point for existing ships is for owners and operators to reduce the risks associated with the energy transition by reducing base load emissions now. If you think of decarbonization as a staircase with several discrete steps to take towards full decarbonization, it becomes clear that there are many intermediate steps that can be taken to reduce fuel consumption and therefore emissions.

Intermediate stages, whether for retrofit or new build projects, range from focusing on propulsion enhancement technologies or electrification technologies – this includes hybridization, shore connections, generators shaft, wind assist, air lubrication or a range of other options. In addition, energy efficiency technologies reduce fuel consumption, which would have a beneficial impact when considering the potential increase in fuel costs associated with switching to alternative fuels. Each of these steps, which can be taken now, could be important to staying competitive in the age of future fuels.

The entire maritime industry must remember that it is possible to start making progress today if we make decarbonization a strategic priority. The next step will require each operator to review their fleet composition and continue to climb the ladder to achieve full decarbonization.

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