Towards a zero emission maritime industry

Posted on: 13/09/2019

The maritime industry is responsible for half the global fuel oil demand. How can the sector ‘clean itself up’?

This is the second in a series of blogs around the maritime sector from KTN’s Knowledge Transfer Manager, Rail and Maritime, Ian Stock.


Of the key themes affecting the maritime industry that of the environment is perhaps the most debated issue.  Specifically, the challenge focuses on emissions of GHGs (Green House Gases) from shipping; understandable as the maritime industry, which consumed 3.8m barrels per day of fuel oil in 2017, is responsible for half the global fuel oil demand.

The pressure to ‘clean up the industry’ has been building for a number of years.  The establishment of Emission Control Areas (ECAs) under the 1997 MARPOL Annex VI regulations, which came into force in 2005, set emission limits for SOx, NOx, ODSs (Ozone Depleting Substances) and VOCs(Volatile Organic Compounds).  By 2011, after a more stringent Annex VI was introduced, four such ECA areas existed – North Sea, Baltic Sea, North America and the US Caribbean.

The pressure and urgency was added to by the IMO’s 1st January 2020 regulation, committing the maritime sector to reduce sulphur emissions by 80% through the use of low (0.5%) sulphur fuels.

Within this topic the slogan of ‘zero emissions by 2050′ has assumed primacy. The term assumed general use through the Paris Climate Change talks, and specifically in the UK with the publication in January 2019 of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA’s) Clean Air Strategy (containing a transport specific section) and the Department for Transport’s (DfT’s) Maritime 2050 policy.  These documents set out the aim of achieving net zero emissions generally, and that the UK would actively drive the transition to zero emission shipping in its waters by 2050.

The signing of a commitment by the UK government in June 2019, and additional maritime related documents – notably the Clean Maritime Plan and Port Air Quality Strategies – published in July 2019, have formally set the UK to achieve net zero emissions of GHGs by 2050.

The phrase ‘net zero emissions’ does not mean than no GHGs will be emitted, but that such emissions could be offset by other measures and activities to compensate.

Within the context of 80% of world trade going by sea, and the relative longevity of the assets, a number of questions arise. These include:

  • What are the alternative propulsion systems and fuels that will achieve the target?
  • How can organisations and individuals be nudged to adopt GHG reducing technologies?
  • How are emissions to be measured and monitored?
  • What is the impact likely to be?
  • In what timescale?
  • How do you monitor and measure the impact?

Immediate options for meeting the IMO’s 0.5% cap on sulphur content are somewhat limited.  Three main choices exist:

  • Change to 0.5% sulphur marine oil and pay a higher cost for this change. There is an estimated 250m-plus tonnes of bunkers being used by the global shipping fleet annually.  Given the present price premium of US$180-200 per tonne for 0.5% sulphur fuel, compared to normal 3.5% sulphur fuel, there will be at least US$35 bn in added costs.
  • Fit scrubbers to collect the sulphurous emissions from the diesel oil. The installation cost here is about $2m per ship for a new build and up to $4m for retrofitting.
  • Use an alternative, more environmentally friendly fuel source, requiring modification to the diesel propulsion system.  Examples in use today are LNG, hybrid electric systems, biodiesel and methanol.

Longer term alternatives (currently in demonstrator mode) are seen to be hydrogen gas/fuel cells, electric only, wind/sails and solar technologies.  These may require adaptations to the propulsion system, structural changes to the ship, or improved supply infrastructure.  In addition, combinations of these technologies are possible in order to deliver additional power, provide resilience or extend a ship’s range.

KTN helps companies develop their innovations and technologies and is active in the maritime industry.  Several of our sector teams are working in this area including the Emerging Technologies Team who have an interest in Position, Navigation and Timing and also run the MarRINav project; and the Transport Team who have an interest in areas such as Autonomous Vehicles and is working with DfT and MarRI-UK to promote the competition below.  In addition, our Infrastructure Team has Energy specialists who are working with stakeholders and industry in areas such as battery technology and clean energy.

£1m Clean Maritime competition

A DfT funded competition, currently open to expressions of interest, is seeking innovations to help reduce maritime emissions. The competition covers areas like electrification, alternative propulsion and fuels. Details of this £1m Clean Maritime competition, administered by MarRI-UK, can be found here.


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