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SMTC 2021: Political will and time the missing components from shipping’s transition away from fossil fuels

16 Apr 2021

The following interview arranged by Informa Connect is part of pre-event coverage for the upcoming Singapore Maritime Technology Conference 2021 (SMTC 2021), where Manifold Times is an official media partner. Readers can find out more about the virtual event by clicking on the link here

The only obstacles in the path of shipping’s transition away from fossil fuels now rests in the hands of governments and time, according to the Lead Author of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s 3rd and Author of the 4th Greenhouse Gas Study.

Dr Tristan Smith, a Reader at University College London, shared his thoughts in a recent interview with Singapore bunkering publication Manifold Times when asked of the challenges for alternative bunker fuels to be successfully used by the shipping industry.

“There is no technical challenge that we are aware of that makes a number of candidate fuels impossible to use. The only missing components for shipping’s transition away from fossil fuel use is political will and time,” he states.

“The two are in competition – the longer it takes for political will to formulate, the less time there will be for shipping’s transition.”

According to Dr Smith, who is also Head – Maritime Workstream at World Bank’s Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC), climate change is already occurring with devastating impacts – where vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh and other island nations are expected to be lost over the coming three decades of the economic life of today’s newbuildings.

“The political will is growing but insufficiently fast to leave sectors like shipping enough time to change as smoothly as would be desirable,” he notes.

“The consequence of political will growing too slowly is that it is then more likely that collective failure and indecision by governments at venues like the IMO will mean shipping has only a very short period (e.g. a decade) to transition from fossil fuels to a completely new energy system.

“Predicated on the fact that in any analysis to achieve the IMO’s 2050 goals, a significant move away from fossil fuel use needs to start before the end of this decade and see very rapid growth of zero carbon energy/fuel use during the 2030s.

“This urgency will be required if no significant progress has been made by the end of this decade, or alternatively we will all experience much more significant, deeper, and longer lasting climate related impacts and damage to ecosystems and society.”

Dr Smith believes that without policy that can stimulate the deployment and of shipping’s zero carbon energy/fuels by the middle of this decade, we will make it more difficult for companies to adapt to new business models, energy products, operations and skills.

“Significant turbulence and disruption will likely result and many companies will be likely to foreclose,” he expects.

“This is all avoidable, it just requires engagement in the issue and encouragement of governments and IMO to place avoidance of dangerous climate change at the heart of their decision making process.”

Dr Smith, meanwhile, forecasts hydrogen-based material to be the bunker fuel of the future due to its benefits.

“There are a number of candidate fuels which on paper can have zero GHG emissions. But I think shipping’s solution will be a fuel which is sustainable (in all senses of the word) and scalable (e.g. able to be produced in the volumes required to get to 2-300 million tonnes of fuel oil equivalent as per today’s consumption),” he notes.

“The scalability and sustainability requirements make it very challenging, if not impossible, for any fuel with carbon to be competitive to those fuels which are derived more directly from hydrogen production e.g. hydrogen, or the simpler synthesised products like ammonia.

“Fuels like methanol require a source of carbon which can either be a biomass derived source of carbon, or it will have to be ‘sucked’ from the atmosphere. If it is just CO2 captured from a point source, then either it won’t be sustainable (e.g. it will come from a fossil combustion process), or it won’t be scalable.

“And if the CO2 has to be extracted from the atmosphere, it is difficult at this point in time to see that that could be cost-competitive to other processes/fuels.”

Moving forward, though regulation for shipping GHG emissions is currently focused on tank-to-wake emissions calculations (EEDI, EEXI, CII) Dr Smith believes using a well-to-wake approach to measure emissions to be more prudent in the long term.

This is because taking a well-to-wake perspective to calculate emissions enables maritime firms to communicate to clients, financiers, and stakeholders how risks associated with climate change are being managed.

Further, it allows firms to be ready for when regulation and market forces increasingly come in to control emissions on a lifecycle / well-to-wake basis.

“For the longer term all the fuels that shipping will need to move towards as it moves away from using fossil fuels, can have significant upstream GHG emissions,” explains Dr Smith.

“It remains unclear as to whether it will be IMO that regulates to control upstream emissions, national governments, the market or all of these actors, but this will be necessary because in many cases the lower cost fuels are those with the highest upstream emissions which make regulation on operational emissions alone very unlikely to result in addressing the fundamental problem – which is the continued increase in CO2 (and other GHG) emissions in the atmosphere.”

Note: Dr Tristan Smith is a panellist at the Industry Think Tank: Longer Term GHG Implications and Exploring Game Changing Technologies that would Address Emission Targets virtual roundtable scheduled to take place on Tuesday (20 April) at 18:25 – 19:10 SGT as part of SMTC 2021.


Photo credit: University College London
Published: 16 April, 2021Dr

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