On a bright September day at the port in Copenhagen, several hundred people gathered to welcome the official arrival of Laura Maersk.
Laura, like many of the attendees, was not a European dignitary. She was a giant containership, towering a hundred feet above the crowd, and the most visible evidence yet of an effort by the global shipping industry to reduce its role in the planet’s warming.
The ship, commissioned by Danish shipping giant Maersk, was designed with a special engine that can burn two types of fuel – either the black, sticky oil that has powered ships for more than a century, Or a green type made from methanol. By switching to green methanol, this single ship will produce 100 tons less greenhouse gas per day, which is equivalent to the emissions of 8,000 cars.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of global shipping on climate. responsible for shipping cargo about 3 percent Production of global greenhouse gas emissions almost the same Carbon every year like the aviation industry.
Figuring out how to limit those emissions has been difficult. Some ships are adopting an age-old strategy: using the wind to propel them. But ships still need a more constant source of energy powerful enough to take them halfway around the world at once.
Unlike cars and trucks, ships cannot plug in repeatedly to be powered by batteries and the electrical grid: they need a clean fuel that is portable.
Laura Maersk is the first car of its kind to sail with a green methanol engine and represents an important step in the industry’s efforts to address its contribution to climate change. The ship is also a shining example of how far the global shipping sector has to go. While about 125 methanol-burning ships are now on order at the global shipyards of Maersk and other companies, this is a small part of the more than 50,000 cargo ships plying the oceans today, supplying 90 percent of the world’s merchandise. .
The market for green methanol is also in its infancy, and there is no guarantee that the new fuel will be produced in sufficient quantities or at the right price to power the vast fleet of cargo ships operating around the world.
Shipping is surprisingly efficient: Moving goods halfway around the world by container ship produces far less climate-warming gases than moving it by truck across the United States.
This is true to some extent due to the scale of modern cargo ships. Today’s largest container ships are larger than aircraft carriers. Each is capable of carrying more than 20,000 metal containers, which if placed in a line would stretch 75 miles.
That incredible efficiency has reduced transportation costs and enabled modern consumer lifestyles, allowing retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Ikea, and Home Depot to offer a vast array of products at a fraction of their historical costs. Permission has been granted.
Yet this easy consumption has come at the cost of a hotter and dirtier planet. Ships burn fossil fuels as well as impact the atmosphere spewing pollutants That reduces the life expectancy of a large percentage of the world’s people living near ports, said Teresa Bui, policy director for climate at Pacific Environment, an environmental organization.
That pollution was especially bad during the COVID-19 pandemic, when supply chain disruptions caused ships to pile up outside the Port of Los Angeles, creating pollution equivalent to pollution. approximately 100,000 big rigs Per day, he said.
“They have been regulated for decades,” Ms. Bui said of the shipping industry.
Some shipping companies have attempted to cut emissions in recent years and comply with new global pollution standards By fueling its ships with liquefied natural gas. Yet environmental groups and some shipping officials say switching to other fossil fuels that contribute to climate change is a step in the wrong direction.
Maersk and other shipping companies now see green fuels such as methanol, ammonia and hydrogen as the most promising routes for the industry. Maersk is trying to reduce its carbon emissions to zero by 2040, and along with other investors, is pouring billions of dollars into clean fuels. But making the switch – even to methanol, the most commercially viable of those fuels today – is no easy feat.
Switching to methanol requires building new ships, or retrofitting older ships with different engines and fuel storage systems. Global ports must install new infrastructure to refuel ships while they dock.
Perhaps most importantly, an entire industry still needs to emerge to produce green methanol, which is in demand from airlines and factory owners as well as shipping carriers.
Methanol, which is used to make chemicals and plastics as well as a fuel, is typically produced using coal, oil or natural gas. Green methanol can be made by environmentally friendly methods using renewable energy and carbon captured from the atmosphere or extracted from landfills, cow and pig manure, or other organic waste.
But the world still does not produce much green methanol. Maersk has committed to using only sustainably produced methanol, but if other shipping companies use methanol fuel made from coal or oil, it will not be better for the environment.
Ahmed Al-Hoshi, chief executive of OCI Global, which makes methane from green sources such as natural gas and landfill gas, said companies are producing “extremely small amounts” of green methanol today using renewable energy.
“Frankly, companies haven’t done much in our industry yet,” he said. “It’s all hype.”
Fuel producers still need to master the technology to build these projects, he said. And to finance them they need buyers willing to enter into long-term contracts for the green fuel, which can be three to five times more expensive than conventional fuel.
Maersk has signed contracts with fuel providers including OCI and European Energy, building the world’s largest plant to produce methanol with renewable electricity in Denmark. The shipping company already has customers like Amazon and Volvo that are willing to pay more to move their goods with green fuel, in order to reduce their own carbon footprint.
But many other companies are not yet willing to pay the costs required for green technologies, Mr. El-Houshi said.
Mr. El-Houshi and others in the shipping and methanol industries said the missing piece is regulation that would help level the playing field between companies trying to clean up their emissions and those still burning dirty fuel.
The EU is introducing rules that encourage ships to decarbonize, including new subsidies for green fuels and fines for fossil fuel use. The United States is promoting new investment in green fuel production and more modern ports through generous domestic spending programs.
But supporters say the key to a green transition in the shipping sector are global rules pending through the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations body that regulates global shipping.
The organization has long been criticized for its slow efforts on climate. This summer, it adopted a more ambitious goal: eliminating the global shipping industry’s greenhouse gas emissions “by or around 2050.”
To get there, countries have pledged to agree on a legally binding way to regulate emissions by the end of 2025, which they will implement in 2027.
Yet countries have yet to agree on what type of regulation to use. They are debating whether to adopt a new standard for clean fuels, impose new taxes per ton of greenhouse gas emitted or adopt some kind of mix of instruments.
Some developing countries and countries that export low-value goods such as agricultural products say that tighter regulation would increase shipping costs and would be economically harmful.
Supporters of regulation – including Maersk – say it is necessary to avoid punishing those who are trying to clean up the business, and provide certainty about the direction of the industry.
“There has to be an economic mechanism by which you can level the playing field so that people are incentivized and not penalized for using low-carbon fuels,” said John Butler, chief executive of the World Shipping Council. ,
“Then you can invest with some confidence,” he said.
Still, Maersk acknowledges that green methanol is unlikely to be the final solution. Experts say the fuel’s reliance on limited sources of waste such as corn husks and cow manure means it will not be enough to power the entire global shipping fleet.
In an interview, Maersk Chief Executive Vincent Clerc said the entire maritime sector was unlikely to be driven primarily by methanol. But Maersk now has no regrets about shifting some of its fleet from fossil fuels to methanol and then adopting new technologies as they become available, he said.
“This symbolizes a real systemic change for this sector,” Mr Clerk said, pointing to a ship filled with 20-foot-high containers in front of him.
Eric Leveridge, climate campaign manager for Pacific Environment, said his group is pleased that Maersk and other shipping companies are moving toward more sustainable fuels. But the organization is still concerned that “this is more for optics and the impact is potentially being exaggerated,” he said.
“When it comes down to it, even if it’s an investment, there are still a lot of heavy fuel oil ships on the water,” he said.