Global Shipping Is Under Pressure to Stop Its Heavy Fuel Oil Use Fast – That’s Not Simple, but Changes Are Coming

Yves here. Perhaps I am too much of a “glass half full” type, but I find initiatives like this to be extremely frustrating. Yes, global shipping is a huge cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The desired changes will increase shipping costs and presumably will also reduce international shipping, at least somewhat, and encourage more localization.

How about other measures to encourage more closer to home production? And what about another huge shipper, the US military?

By Don Maier, Associate Professor of Business, University of Tennessee. Originally published at The Conversation

Most of the clothing and gadgets you buy in stores today were once in shipping containers, sailing across the ocean. Ships carry over 80% of the world’s traded goods. But they have a problem – the majority of them burn heavy sulfur fuel oil, which is a driver of climate change.

While cargo ships’ engines have become more efficient over time, the industry is under growing pressure to eliminate its carbon footprint.

The European Union Parliament this year voted to require an 80% drop in shipping fuels’ greenhouse gas intensity by 2050 and to require shipping lines to pay for the greenhouse gases their ships release. The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that regulates international shipping, also plans to strengthen its climate strategy this summer. The IMO’s current goal is to cut shipping emissions 50% by 2050. President Joe Biden said on April 20, 2023, that the U.S. would push for a new international goal of zero emissionsby 2050 instead.

We asked maritime industry researcher Don Maier if the industry can meet those tougher targets.

Why Is It So Hard for Shipping to Transition Away from Fossil Fuels?

Economics and the lifespan of ships are two primary reasons.

Most of the big shippers’ fleets are less than 20 years old, but even the newer builds don’t necessarily have the most advanced technology. It takes roughly a year and a half to come out with a new build of a ship, and it will still be based on technology from a few years ago. So, most of the engines still run on fossil fuel oil.

If companies do buy ships that run on alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, methanol and ammonia, they run into another challenge: There are only a few ports so far with the infrastructure to provide those fuels. Without a way to refuel at all the ports that a ship might use, companies will lose their return on investment, so they will keep using the same technology instead.

It isn’t necessarily that the maritime industry doesn’t want to go the direction of cleaner fuels. But their assets – their fleets – were purchased with a long lifespan in mind, and alternative fuels aren’t yet widely available.

Ships are being built that can run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) and methanol, and even hydrogen is coming online. Often these are dual-fuel – ships that can run on either alternative fuels or fossil fuels. But so far, not enough of this type of ship is being ordered for the costs to make financial sense for most builders or buyers.

The costs of alternative fuels, like methanol and hydrogen fuels made with renewable energy (as opposed to being made with natural gas), are also still significantly higher than fuel oil or LNG. But the good news is those costs are starting to decline. As production ramps up, emissions will drop further.

Can Tougher Regulations and Carbon Pricing Effectively Push the Industry to Change?

A little bit of pressure on the industry can be helpful, but too much, too fast can really make things more disruptive.

Like most industries, shipping lines want standardized rules they can count on not to change next year. Some of these companies have invested millions of dollars in new ships in recent years, and they’re now being told that those ships might not meet the new standards – even though the ships may be almost brand new.

Another concern with the EU’s moves is whether it has a grasp on all the “what if” scenarios. For example, if the EU has stricter rules than other countries, that affects which ships companies can use on European routes. Any vessels that they put on routes to Europe will have to meet those emissions standards. If there’s a greater demand for products in Europe, they may have fewer vessels they could use.

Press the play button or zoom out and use the filters to see where different ship types travel. Created by London-based data visualization studio Kiln and the UCL Energy Institute

I do think the change will be coming soon in the industry, but changes have to make financial sense to the shipping lines and their customers, too.

Economists have estimated that the cost of cutting emissions 50% by 2050 are anywhere from US$1 trillion to, more realistically, over $3 trillion, and full decarbonization would be even higher. Many of those costs will be passed down to charterers, shippers and eventually consumers – meaning you and me.

Are There Ways Companies Can Cut Emissions Now While Preparing to Upgrade Their Fleets?

There are a number of options ship companies are using now to lower emissions.

One that has been used for at least 10 years is putting higher quality paint on the hulls, which reduces the friction between the hull and the water. With less friction, the engine isn’t working as hard, which reduces emissions.

Another is slow speed. If ships run at a higher speed, their engines work harder, which means they use more fuel and release more emissions. So shippers will use slow steaming. Most of the time, ships will go slow when they’re close to shore to reduce emissions that cause smog in port cities like Los Angeles. On the open ocean, they will go back to normal speed.

Another option common in the U.S. and Europe is shutting down the ship’s engines while in port and plugging into the port’s electricity. It’s called “cold ironing.” It avoids burning more of the ship’s fuel, which affects air quality. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where smog from idling ships has been a health concern, have been a big driver of electrification. It’s also less expensive for shipping companies than burning their fuel while in port.

As simple as those may sound, they have made huge improvements in terms of emissions, but they aren’t enough on their own.

Will a higher goal set by the IMO be enough to pressure the industry to change?

I used to work in shipping, and I know the maritime industry is a very old-school industry from centuries ago. But the industry has invested millions in new ships with the most effective technology available in recent years.

When the IMO began requiring all ships using heavy fuel in global trade to shift to low-sulfur fuel, the industry pivoted to meet the rule, even though retrofits were costly and time consuming. Many shipping lines complied by installing “scrubbers” that essentially filter the ship’s engine, and new ships were built to run on the low-sulfur fuel oil.

Now, the industry is being told the standards are changing again.

All industries want consistency so they can be confident investing in a new technology. The shipping lines will follow what the IMO says. They will push back, but they will still do it. That’s in part because the IMO supports the maritime industry, too.

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  1. Brooklin Bridge

    I wonder if using wind is on the horizon for these ships. It’s easy enough to find examples of big ships harnessing wind on the net, such as this, but that doesn’t mean it is sufficiently cost efficient or suitable as of yet to interest this segment of the shipping industry.

    For those ships using it, cost reduction, or energy reduction, (not sure the two are the same), seems to be between 5 and 20 percent and that would seem significant enough to warrant interest but there may be other factors on the negative side such as constraints of docking infrastructure, or how much such ships draw specific to fuel carrying vessels.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        There are lots of interesting proposals out there, especially those using the Magus effect, which seems the simplest way of retrofitting an existing vessel. I recall back in the 1970’s as a tech obsessed kid watching the BBC show Tomorrows World there were various proposals back then, but cheap oil in the 1980’s put paid to all that research and investment.

        I was very interested in ammonia as a transition fuel for existing vessels as it can be mixed in with diesel/bunker fuel for a cleaner burn. Modern electrolysis is very encouraging for manufacturing ammonia using surplus electricity and there has been quite a lot of interest in Europe in investing in those plants at ports. Unfortunately it seems to have proven more problematic than first seemed, as so often happens with promising solutions, but it could still have a role in displacing a significant amount of oil.

        It should be noted that one potential downside of cleaning up shipping is that sulfur emissions at sea seem to contribute quite a lot to lowering temperature over the oceans. So it could be a double edged sword in the short term.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          It’s never simple, is it. I remember being so hopeful in the late 70’s about the idea of going back to sailing ships for transport of non perishables, The twomasted schooner John J. Leavitt, only to have that hope sink on its maiden voyage.

          But damn, if there has to be brimstone along with sulfur, no matter which way we turn, let’s go down with sails! :-)

          Also, it’s impressive that even a conservative group, “a very old-school industry,” is willing to repeatedly invest in carbon reducing efforts.

  2. Cetra Ess

    Not only could we take measures to bring production closer to home, but wind is free and the oceans windy, if we could reduce shipping volumes then whatever else remains that we need to import, we can move by sail. To do this we need to shift away from the just in time model to ordering what we need well ahead of time, although sailing has achieved higher speeds and more resiliency than the clipper ships of yore. Bring back the age of tall ships, I say.

    It seems so many solutions to the climate crisis would involve simply slowing down. Cars are less polluting, consume less fuel, are more energy efficient if driven more slowly, the same would likely be true of industry.

  3. The Rev Kev

    I don’t know what the economic life span of a modern commercial ship is these days but this may be a key factor to consider. It will take the combined efforts of governments and the maritime industry to modernize ship designs to meet the new standards. And government should help out in researching efficiencies that ships can use like those higher quality paints. Hopefully what might happen is that a new generation of ships will be built that will meet modern standards. Ships that do not meet these designs should pay a much higher port tax but only those ships that started construction AFTER the new laws came in. Yes, you would have a generation of ships still out there not meeting the standards but it would be a self-extinguishing problem. Over time, these ships will be retired and scrapped as the newer designs will be more economical for the shipping companies to run causing them to be retired before their use by date.

  4. spud

    the article misses the point.

    you cannot be a environmentalist, and a free trader at the same time. its impossible. let alone a believer in a civil society.

    free trade has destroyed the environment, enslaved, impoverished, and indebted billions of human beings for the profits of a few parasites.

    the real discussion should be why we keep letting this happen. you wanna do away with excess carbon emissions, get rid of free trade

    1. TheRightway

      There won’t be any free trade to the EU but nobody else, hence it will fade away about the same time as Ukraine ceases to exist. Oddly enough by 2030 just in time for the WEFs plan to come to fruition.

  5. Polar Socialist

    I can see that the BRI could also decrease the maritime emissions in multiple ways: better and bigger ports means bigger ships means less ships, and the extensive railroad network means both more land transfer so less ship cargo and especially the time sensitive deliveries can use trains allowing the ships to slow down and emit less.

  6. Winston S

    If I remember correctly (harder than I thought to find good numbers), and something than almost none are mentioning in pieces like this: approx 1/3 of the total global shipping volumes measured in ton-miles is from the trade and transport of oil, gas and other petroleum products itself, from exporting to importing countries. There will likely be significant second order effects then, if headline oil/gas demand is in long term decline due to the energy transition, so too does this inherent demand and associated emissions.

  7. Boomheist

    It is really difficult to really understand the complexity and scale of the infrastructure which supplies fuels to ships. First, the heavy residual fuel oil used by ships is a byproduct of refining other, lighter fuels, like diesel and gas, and, if not burned in ships, is essentially a waste byproduct. It needs to be heated to flow sufficiently to burn in a marine engine. Every port in the world has a fleet if fuel ships and barges which come to the anchored ships, hook up complex thick hoses, and pump fuel into the ship’s tanks. I worked on container ships about a decade ago and back then the move was to lighter-sulphur fuels, and in fact you had to switch to lighter fuels in certain areas close to land, which in turn meant the ships needed different tanks for the different fuels. Ships, and ship engines, are big, as in, up to a quarter mile long for the ships and up to 70,000 ho0rsepower for the engines, which can be the size of a house. It is easy to suggest converting ships to new fuels, or engines, but the scale and costs needed are enormous, not to mention the time out of service. In the shipping world, consistency is the rule – consistent fuel supplies and types, consistent fitting sizes to attach hoses around the world, etc etc – and asking ships to handle new fuels must also meet all these other consistent demands, a not easy task.

    And ships, as mentioned above, last a long time, at least a quarter century, and often much longer than that. One ship I worked on was over 900 feet long, about 47,000 horsepower, burned 300 tons a day of heavy fuel oil at 20 knots, and when I was on her had been in service 26 years. Over that time the engines had been running over 175,000 thousand – thousand – hours.

    So changing over the worldwide fleet will be extremely difficult. It is also the case that while ships cause lots of carbon, ships, per ton-mile of freight carried, are much more efficient than, say, trucks or trains (neither of which of course can be used on an ocean, but still…) and so long as we have a system or worldwide trade and transport I fear we will be using ships burning residual fuel. This isn’t to say of course we shouldn’t always try to find cleaner solutions, but as well-discussed in the story above given the long lifetime of the ships any big change will be enormously difficult to accomplish.

    Global shipping causes about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It might be a better strategy to make ships as efficient as possible with residual fuels and lighter diesels, leaving most of that 3 percent occurring, in order to maintain and underpin the worldwide economic system, and focus instead on other ways to reduce emissions.

  8. Brunches with Cats

    Washington State Ferries in 2012/2013 began looking at converting the fleet to LNG. IIRC, the original motive was not so much the emissions, but the cost of diesel. An initial study concluded that switching to LNG was technically and financially feasible.

    Having left the Seattle area in 2017, I didn’t track their progress, so just did a quick search and see they’ve abandoned that plan for conversion to hybrid electric. Meanwhile, WSF just sent several engineers to an LNG training course in Maryland (heard from a friend firsthand), dunno know what’s up with that. Anyway, here’s a link to the WSF hybrid electric project overview:

    The ferries aren’t ocean-going vessels, (although some of them are enormous, with four “house-size” engines). So maybe conversion doesn’t scale up to container ships. Others would know better than I. Just throwing it out there as a possible rebuttal to the article’s contention that switching fuels would require building all new boats.

    FWIW, an article about the new project quotes a WSF spokesman as saying LNG was abandoned because the technology wasn’t “mature,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Wondering whether the real problem is that all available U.S. LNG is going to Europe, with higher profits for the producers.

    1. Ken

      Washington State ferries have burned low sulfur diesel fuel, not high sulfur residual bunker fuel oil. Does liquified natural gas offer any carbon savings over marine diesel fuel? (I don’t think so.). LNG has local distribution problems. A proposal to expand a local liquification plant ran into opposition regarding methane emissions into the atmosphere…I don’t know if that was a real concern or not.

      Diesel electric hybrid operations has possibilities. It consists of using several diesel engines powering electric generators sending electricity into batteries. The battery bank powers electric propulsion motors. The engines will run at their most economical rpm and load with engines automatically started and stopped as needed to handle the boat speed needed. This will save fuel and reduce the carbon output.

      1. Brunches with Cats

        Yes, I remember the opposition, was on the email list of a WSF watchdog group that had multiple reasons for being against the LNG plan, including negligible environmental benefits. I didn’t mention it, because I seriously doubt it had any impact whatsoever. Although converting to LNG was on the radar before Inslee took office, he supported WSF’s plans, and it didn’t take me long to understand that he gave exactly zero fux about public opinion. He didn’t have to, as party leader in a one-party state.

        FYI, for shipping wonks, here is a March 2010 consultant’s report:

        As an aside, I lived in said one-party state for about five years before predicting, circa 2010, that when — not “if” — this country devolved into f—ism/totalitarianism, it would be under the Democrats. Inslee’s utter disregard for the will of the public erased whatever doubts others put into my mind about that conclusion. And just to be clear, I was all my life, as Matt Taibbi described himself to Congress, an ACLU-card-carrying D.)

  9. Piotr Berman

    I think this is ridiculous from the global perspective. Locally, in Western Europe, they have static or declining consumption of electricity, and as they expand wind and solar, they may pursue schemes of “carbon neutrality” based on the abundance of green power. Globally, there is a big need for more electricity to expand growing economies and provide less wretched standard of living. Think about sweat-drenched garment factories in Bangladesh…

    Thus, globally, the most acute issue is how this huge demand (look at stats of India) with decrease in fossil fuel use. Is there a combination of wind, solar, nuclear and hydro-power that can do it, at the cost that would not arrest those societies in poverty?

    In other words, global schemes should focus on generation and supply of energy at times when it is needed, while energy loss conversions to ammonia, hydrogen or alcohol postponed for later, at least 10 or 20 years. Shipping looks like 2-3% of global energy use, and conversion costs and risks too high (hydrogen and ammonia make good explosives…, mix it with industry that is notorious for cost cutting, full of rusty hulks).

  10. Mickey Hickey

    Back in the good old days around 1960 when I was at sea big ships were 15,000 to 20,000 tons, cruised at 12 to 15 knots with engines fueled by Bunker C which changed to diesel in the early seventies. Today big ships are 200,000 to 300,000 tons and are big enough to use nuclear power except many ports do not allow nuclear power. Crews were around 50 back then and close to 20 now. Shipping is crucial to world trade, there is no cost effective replacement except no trade. The life of a ship is 25 to 30 years, as they get older they get sold off to the under developed world. Who using lower cost labour extend their life. I have seen ships pulled up on shore in India and Bangladesh and being dismantled.

  11. Ken

    Separate the details about sulfur emissions and carbon emissions. January 1, 2020, ships were required to reduce sulfur output in their exhaust gas by using fuel that was no more than 0.5% sulfur vs. the old limit of 3.5%. They could burn either very low sulfur fuel oil or burn high sulfur fuel oil and scrub the stack gases where the sulfurous scrubbing water was then dumped into the ocean. In certain low emission zones the fuel sulfur limit is 0.1% sulfur.

    Prices for the very low sulfur heavy fuel oil (VLSFO) are $100 or more per metric ton than high sulfur heavy fuel oil (IFO380): L.A. $630 vs. $540, Singapore $595 vs. 479, Rotterdam $558 vs. $472. And, prices for installing and amortizing a scrubber system aren’t cheap, either.

    For carbon reduction slow steaming requires more ships, thus more capital investment. Ship’s engines are not made to run at greatly reduced power, so they need to be modified. Alternate fuels are possible, but most require more volume than heavy fuel oil for the same BTU content, so that means less space for cargo, thereby increasing shipping costs. And the world wide availability of the alternate fuel must be guaranteed.

  12. Trout Creek

    Deadly ironic,
    Cuts in air pollution particulates, which cool the planet by enhancing clouds, have added (past tense) 50%–100% to the rate of global warming. This is simple atmospheric physics.

    “It’s one of the paradoxes of global warming. Burning coal or gasoline releases the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. But it also lofts pollution particles that reflect sunlight and cool the planet, offsetting a fraction of the warming. Now, however, as pollution-control technologies spread, both the noxious clouds and their silver lining are starting to dissipate.”

    “Using an array of satellite observations, researchers have found that the climatic influence of global air pollution has dropped by up to 30% from 2000 levels. Although this is welcome news for public health—airborne fine particles, or aerosols, are believed to kill several million people per year—it is bad news for global warming. The cleaner air has effectively boosted the total warming from carbon dioxide emitted over the same time by anywhere from 15% to 50%, estimates Johannes Quaas, a climate scientist at Leipzig University and lead author of the study. And as air pollution continues to be curbed, he says, “There is a lot more of this to come.”

    “I believe their conclusions are correct,” says James Hansen, a retired NASA climate scientist who first called attention to the “Faustian bargain” of fossil fuel pollution in 1990.

  13. rjs

    in re: “But they have a problem – the majority of them burn heavy sulfur fuel oil, which is a driver of climate change.”

    yes, but it is a net negative driver and eliminating it altogether will only make it hotter. citing the BBC, a day ago:

    Recent, rapid ocean warming ahead of El Niño alarms scientists – BBC News (excerpts) –

    A recent, rapid heating of the world’s oceans has alarmed scientists concerned that it will add to global warming.

    This month, the global sea surface hit a new record high temperature. It has never warmed this much, this quickly.

    In March, sea surface temperatures off the east coast of North America were as much as 13.8C higher than the 1981-2011 average.

    One factor that could be influencing the level of heat going into the oceans is, interestingly, a reduction in pollution from shipping.

    In 2020, the International Maritime Organisation put in place a regulation to reduce the sulphur content of fuel burned by ships.

    This has had a rapid impact, reducing the amount of aerosol particles released into the atmosphere.

    But aerosols that dirty the air also help reflect heat back into space – removing them may have caused more heat to enter the waters.

    >>> the irony here is that just a few days ago some here were talking about adding sulfur aerosols to the atmosphere to help cool the planet

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