By Kavinda Ratnapala
The global shipping industry has problems, too many to count. They range from the lack of containers in the key shipping routes to ever-evolving national regulations to labour strikes and shortages. However, on a planetary scale, the biggest challenge that is faced is that of the nearly 100,000 merchant ships at sea only one ship can carry out a carbon-neutral voyage. This too being a proof concept vessel, is not a suitable comparison to the kind of cargo vessel at scale which needs to be decarbonized. To put into perspective the scale of the emissions challenge faced by the global shipping industry. In 2020, the industry accounted for roughly 11% of the total anthropogenic global greenhouse emissions in the transport industry which is the 2nd largest emitting industrial sector in the world.
In this article, I will elaborate as to why the global merchant fleet has as of yet, not moved, toward carbon-neutral modes of transport. Next, it will detail a tangible alternative to the fossil-fuel-based propulsion, that is being trialled in the market. The essay will make the reader aware that there are no silver bullets in the path to net-zero emissions. Rather, meaningful and sustainable progress is only attenable through multipronged approaches that not only sees off overreliance on fossil fuels but also negate tendencies towards dependence on any single solution.
The Current State of Shipping
The main challenge that shipping magnates including the three dominant shipping alliances namely: Ocean Alliance, THE Alliance and 2M Alliance, face in transitioning to a carbon-neutral option is a matter of Energy Density. What this boils down to is a matter of weight. Replacing fuel with a battery to get the same mileage is not possible simply due to the fact that the batteries are just too heavy. In road-based transport, this issue has been solved through the shorter travel distances and increasing the number of charging stations. However, this is not the same for ships in the merchant navy. For instance, The Guardian has estimated that larger merchant ships with about 18,000 twenty-foot container equivalent units or TEUs, designed to circumnavigate the world require about 33mn pounds of fuel. The weight of a battery system to match these specifications would weigh approximately 1.6bn pounds which is well beyond the dead-weight capacity of any ship which could be hypothetically envisaged. That’s why decarbonizing ships requires a different kind of innovation.
Moreover, apart from the prohibitive costs associated with infrastructure upgrades and replacing the diesel-powered merchant fleet. Diesel continues to be the most cost-effective, universally available and most critically, energy-rich fuel enabling the circumnavigation of the globe on a single tank of fuel.
Reframing the Question at Hand
While Hydrogen has been promised as a real alternative to fossil fuels. Its practical application has been a long time coming. To date, there has been no evidence to suggest that hydrogen has been seriously considered by the aforementioned shipping alliances as a real alternative. The story thus far narrated seems to lead to a dead-end, with no clear path out of the conundrum that is rising emissions in the shipping industry.
As always, when faced with an impasse the solution seems to be the reframing of the question to solve a more amenable problem. For the past 100 years, the economics of shipping, the design of vessels and their accompanying infrastructure has been geared towards accommodating bigger and bigger vessels. Which in turn has been predicated upon the continuous use of fossil fuels to power these behemoths. The task at hand as exemplified below then is to return to the drawing board and ask the question: how can fossil fuels be dropped and shipping optimized around the none fossil fuels as the source of propulsion?
Replaceable Battery Technology
Developing upon the reframing of the question to focus on electrification. It seems the future of electric transport is not only in fast charging and denser battery capacity but in battery interchangeability. This idea is not a pipe dream for it is being trialled by a Chinese EV (electric vehicle) company dismissing Tesla which as of early 2021 questioned its suitability for widespread use. It is this very logic that the company Fleetzero is championing with its prototype interchangeable container-size battery. By optimizing shipping, around replaceable batteries that can be loaded and offloaded through the use of cranes -the method through which containers are unloaded by terminal operators. The goal was not to replace 20,000 TEU ships capable of circumnavigating the world, this was where the previous attempts at electrifying ships failed as detailed in the preceding section. But the goal is to focus on medium-size ships carrying under 5,000 TEUs designed to make quick stops along short-sea shipping routes. This thinking is capitalizing on an increasing trend of most ports requiring ships that dock to cut their highly polluting engines and plug into the port’s power supply directly.
The benefits of electrification and in the process shifting focus towards increasing the size of the global fleet via medium-sized ships does not stop here. Because the ships are smaller, they are not restricted to dock at a select few deep-water ports and as such the number of ports from around the world that become useable increases manyfold. By having more ports from which business can be carried out shippers reduce their exposure to unloading delays that have been experienced at some of the major ports from around the world -as has been experienced over the past year. The cause of such delays being due to a combination of ships having to wait for berthing spots, the lack of container unloading space on the docks, the lack of chassis on which containers sit, long wait for trucks at ports and over-crowding of warehousing.
Another benefit of this approach is the enhanced efficiency enabled emissions and cost savings. As sea freight is a cheaper service than road freight and mid-sized ships can access a greater number of ports. Containers can be delivered closer to the final destination reducing the middle-mile constraints that reliance on container trucks brings with them along with reduced GHG emissions. Which is the reason behind all these developments in the first place.
Some Concluding Thoughts.
Clearly, de-carbonizing at a societal level is no easy feat and none of the solutions will be silver bullets. But if any meaningful headway is to be made toward realizing the bare minimum of carbon neutrality a multi-pronged and multi-technology path is the way forward. While it is too soon to make definite claims concerning the viability of battery replacement as a means for de-carbonizing the merchant fleet. This nuanced approach which practically solves more than just the primary impediment at hand, deserves more than the typical scorn and doubt innovation brings forth.
Related to this article:
For an account of the impacts of alternative greener fuels used by the global shipping industry see here
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Kavinda Ratnapala, has worked in a range of Corporate and Not for Profit roles from which he ideates and writes in the Sustainability and Governance space whilst occasionally dabbling in matters of ethics and geopolitics of interest. He holds a Master in Environment and Sustainability with a Bachelor in International Relations.
You can email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter under the handle @kavinda937 or connect on LinkedIn.