Greening in shipping: where is the international policy?

"Please do your job!" Shipping company MSC had a clear message for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The latter appears unable to translate the objectives of the Paris climate agreement into a proper policy for shipping. This is regrettable, the more so as the cost of greening in shipping is relatively low compared to other sectors. For lack of any international regulations, private companies are taking the initiative themselves and are starting research into alternative fuels.

Container ships have a small ecological footprint for the large amount of cargo they transport. A big difference with aviation, with its large emissions for a very small cargo. With the right regulations, the sector can therefore move towards net zero emissions. An ambition that has been endorsed by the United Nations, of which IMO itself is a member. Meanwhile, international pressure is mounting on IMO to revise its targets and focus on sustainable fuels.

Sustainable fuel: what exactly are we talking about?

The European Union, among others, have already established what exactly should be understood under ‘sustainable fuel’. It published a wide range of Renewable and Low-carbon Fuels (RLF), focusing on fuels made from truly sustainable biomass, waste and renewable electricity. For each type of fuel, the EU indicates the expected future availability.

For our sector, the most promising avenue is that of fuels such as biofuels and green methanol. If you then combine these fuels with post-treatment, such as our ULEv filter system, vessels will generate extremely low emissions of NOx and particulates, among other things. And that is required. By 2030, the EU wants to halve the number of deaths caused by air pollution. We are also increasingly involving our customers in our sustainability ambitions.

With success: the Flemish government recently awarded us the contract 'Sustainable maintenance dredging of the maritime passage ways to Antwerp'. Our ULEv vessels meet the strict demands for nitrogen emissions. We hope that this first sustainability partnership will soon be followed by others.

New vessel design

For several years now, our standard practice has been to equip our new vessels with our ULEv exhaust gas treatment system. With this innovative and far-reaching step in terms of vessel design, we already comply with the EU STAGE V regulations. Today, we are going one step further and by using methanol, we exceed the requirements of existing regulations. The new vessels are designed in such a way that they can use both biodiesel and alternative fuels such as methanol. This makes us less dependent on local availability.

The use of fuels with a low flash point, such as methanol, requires other considerations when designing ships. To achieve the same autonomy, the tank capacity must be 2.5 times bigger as methanol has a lower energy density compared to biodiesel. In addition, we have to take into account all the accessories that methanol entails, such as gas detection systems and explosion-proof electrical equipment. Remember that such fuels with a low flash point were not allowed on board in the past. The whole sector will therefore have to learn to deal with this new energy and the regulations that come with it.

Sailing on batteries

There are also interesting opportunities in further electrification. Our initial analyses of a 'hybrid' hopper showed that a vessel can run entirely on batteries, although currently for a limited time only. And because battery-powered vessels generate no emissions, this technology is perfect for operations in vulnerable nature reserves or near densely populated areas. However, it is still too early for a full electrification on batteries. The energy from existing batteries does not yet suffice to work with it around the clock, so a vessel would have to be plugged in twice a day. The market is currently not ready for this.

Batteries are not just a solution for supplying energy. They can also recover and store energy on board. For example, when our floating installation vessel Les Alizés lowers a load from its crane, it will be able to reuse the energy that is released to work more efficiently and economically.

What if we would go CO2-negative?

We consider all alternative fuels and their evolution from a broad perspective and with an open mind. As always, the market depends heavily on investors and manufacturers evolving with their products, within a robust regulatory framework. Therefore, we support initiatives that enable a sustainability roadmap for (our) vessels. Today, we are even going a little further in our search and are already investigating whether our vessels could once become carbon-negative. This would enable us to remove biogenic CO2 from the energy chain and store it. In other words, we are still far from reaching the end point in the development of alternative fuels.