Charting a course for emission-free shipping

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 (Image: Pixabay © CC0)

(Image: Pixabay © CC0)

On behalf of a German ship operator, a team from ETH Zurich mapped out "routes" towards emission-free shipping. To this end, they investigated shipping activities in the North and Baltic Seas as well as the infrastructure, costs of new fuels and storage options.

Shipping currently accounts for around three percent of global CO2 emissions, which makes it one of the largest polluters in the transport industry alongside road and air transport. International merchant ships and large freighters are responsible for the lion’s share of these emissions. In response, various organisations, shipping companies and governments have set themselves the joint goal of establishing water transport to be carbon-neutral in the coming years. What has never been quite clear, however, is how to make this transition effectively.

Now, a group from the Department of Management, Technology and Economics at ETH Zurich has mapped out possible ways to achieve emission-free shipping as part of the sus.lab project which, in collaboration with partners from industry, aims to translate scientific findings into sustainable practices. Christian Oldendorff, entrepreneur and co-owner of German shipping company Reederei Nord, commissioned the team to undertake the study.

North and Baltic Sea region drives innovation

The report is based on shipping activities in the North and Baltic Seas. According to lead author Petrissa Eckle, this region has already made a name for itself as a driver of innovation in the industry. As a relatively small area, it’s also well suited for testing which solutions actually work in practice. Using external studies and interviews with innovators and industry experts as a basis, Eckle and her team investigated routes, the existing infrastructure, sustainability and the cost of new fuel options.

They focused their efforts on alternative energy sources that will be available in the next five to ten years and that don’t emit CO2 as the ships travel. Another key requirement of the solutions they proposed was that they be scalable for international shipping. Although the study did not include measures to enhance efficiency, such as optimised hull design or operational improvements, these would result in even greater energy savings and would, in turn, further reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Synthetic fuels such as methane and methanol would in theory provide a CO2-neutral option for the shipping industry - but the disadvantage is that ships powered in this way would still emit CO2 as they travel.

"Pilot projects are the next step"

Petrissa Eckle and her team therefore see zero-emission propulsion systems in the form of electric motors, fuel cells or combustion engines powered by ammonia as holding the greatest potential in the near future. What makes the most suitable source of energy depends on the type of ship and length of the route. "In the North and Baltic Seas, ships with electric propulsion systems are already being used for short distances, which makes sense," Eckle says.

For long distances, the report contends that ammonia would be a suitable option but due to its toxicity, its use as a fuel is not currently permitted. As for hydrogen, there is still a lack of capacity for liquifying and transporting; testing will soon begin on the first cargo vessels. "The next step is to run pilot projects to find answers to all the unresolved questions. We need shipping companies to test vessels with emission-free propulsion systems," Eckle says.

The report is part of an initiative by Christian Oldendorff, the shipping company co-owner who commissioned the study. His aim is to unite important stakeholders - such as shipping companies, ship operators, investors and political decision-makers - behind a common vision for a more sustainable future for shipping. According to Oldendorff, the time has come to take action: as one of the largest generators of emissions in the transport sector, the shipping industry must find new ways of operating that are both economically and ecologically sustainable. It’s time to change our mindset and make it our mission to pursue alternative fuels and greater efficiency, he says.

As part of the initiative, eight ship operators active in the North and Baltic Seas will convene on 28 October to discuss the results of the report.

Rebecca Lehmann