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3 December 2021

Emissions at sea: Are new fuels the key?

Mathieu de Carvalho, biogas lead at TotalEnergies, says solutions to the confounding problem of maritime shipping emissions are close at hand.

By Dave Keating

Aviation may get a lot of attention when it comes to the battle against climate change, but the way we receive most of what we order has a more significant impact on emissions at the end of the day. Maritime shipping currently accounts for 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – more than aviation. The ships that transport our goods across the Earth are powered by fossil fuels, and because of the distances they travel electrification is not the most practical solution. Operational changes like travelling slower have also been suggested, although these ideas have made only slow progress at the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

French multinational oil and gas company TotalEnergies has been working on alternative fuels that could be used without requiring a complete change in how ships operate. They have recently launched the first French port project of Bio-LNG production in the Grand Port of Marseille, along with waste treatment company Everé, maritime transport logistics company CMA CGM group and Engie subsidiary Elengy. Energy Monitor asked Mathieu de Carvalho, TotalEnergies’ head of biogas policy, regulation and advocacy, about the possibilities in the pipeline.

Mathieu de Carvalho, TotalEnergies’ head of biogas policy, regulation and advocacy. (Photo courtesy of TotalEnergies)

What can be done to lessen the climate impact of maritime emissions?

The shipping industry must accelerate its energy transition in view of new obligations that will be put in place to reduce its carbon footprint and tackle climate change.

In Europe, the regulatory framework for maritime transport is being shaped with the ‘Fit for 55‘ package. This includes the gradual extension of the EU ETS [Emissions Trading System] to shipping starting in 2023 – with a three-year phase in period – and the FuelEU Maritime initiative, which introduces GHG intensity targets for maritime fuels.

At global level, we expect a revised GHG strategy from the IMO in 2023. All these ambitious decarbonisation targets will be achieved through fuels with lower GHG intensity.

The sector is investigating various alternatives to conventional fuels, such as LNG [liquified natural gas], bioLNG, e-methane, green hydrogen, green ammonia, low-carbon methanol, etc. LNG is the first step in replacing traditional fuels [such as HFO (heavy fuel oil), MGO (marine gasoil) and LFO (light fuel oil)]. It is the best alternative option at scale today and the fuel of choice to start decarbonising shipping. It is also good to remember that pollution goes beyond GHG emissions, and LNG drastically reduces NOx [nitrogen oxides], SOx [sulphur oxides] and particulate matter [soot].

Biomethane produced from organic waste and e-methane produced from green hydrogen are a new generation of fuels that allow accelerated decarbonisation. They have the advantage of being the same molecule as natural gas. Both can be liquefied to get bioLNG or eLNG [synthetic], so no ship retrofitting is needed. There is huge potential. A rapid scale-up of production will be key to fulfil the needs of this industry.

Europe has unique industrial assets [such as port facilities and logistics] to develop the whole supply chain for these alternative fuels, from production to the ships’ engines and [fuel] reservoirs.

What about electrification? Is it feasible for maritime transport?

We should electrify what can reasonably be electrified, but the EU Commission agrees that electrification will have a minor role in maritime transport. The projections for electric vessels in inland waterways and national shipping are between 11% and 18% [of volume] by 2050. It will only be feasible in smaller vessels and for short-sea journeys. We will need other solutions for deep sea transportation. The ships that we refer to as “giants of the seas” are clearly not suited for electric propulsion.

For cruise and container ships, according to the ‘Fit for 55’ [onshore power supply in the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive], onboard internal uses of the ships are to be supplied through electrified shores in order not to burn oil or gas when the ship is at berth.

How does natural gas compare with other types of fuel for maritime transport in terms of climate impact? What about in terms of cost? How available are LNG, bioLNG and eLNG?

Compared with conventional maritime fuel oils, LNG significantly reduces emissions from local pollutants. SOx and particulate matter emissions are reduced to near zero due to the very low sulphur content of LNG. NOx can be reduced by up to 85%.

In addition, compared with even very low-sulphur fuel oils, LNG significantly reduces GHG emissions, even when accounting for methane slip from the combustion emissions. Natural gas can cut GHG emissions reductions from shipping by up to 23% compared with current oil-based marine fuels, over the entire life cycle from well-to-wake. Moreover, current technological developments, such as those deployed in the newest LNG vessels, continue to reduce methane slip and will further improve LNG’s GHG emissions reduction.

It is worth noting too that most of the current global fleet and order book for future LNG-fuelled ships are oriented toward two-stroke engines, which slip less methane than four-stroke engines.

If today’s global maritime transport completely switched to LNG, its GHG emissions would decrease by 15%. Improvements in methane emissions management in the LNG supply chain could bring this number to 20% by 2030. Further, blending with 20% of bioLNG could raise it again, to savings of up to 34%. So, the switch to gas can deliver immediate emissions reductions. The GHG footprint of new engines is decreasing all the time.

We are part of Eurogas and as such we are also active on many platforms like the Methane Guiding Principles, OGMP 2.0, OGCI and GIIGNL. These platforms are advancing all the time. GIIGNL for example, is an industry-led initiative that has recently created a new framework for monitoring and reporting GHG emissions from LNG cargo vessels. It will promote a common approach to emissions reductions and ensure that offsetting is used sensibly, alongside overall emissions reductions.

Blending with BioLNG or eLNG can bring significant reductions today and promote the circular economy, leading to negative emissions, like the project at Marseille’s major shipping port spearheaded by CMA CGM, Engie and TotalEnergies.

What policies are needed to boost the use of alternative fuels in shipping?

EU policies [should] ensure a level playing field for all renewable and low-carbon GHG emissions reduction solutions. This means enabling access to these alternative fuels as quickly and simply as possible to the shipping industry. Any assessment of GHG impact should take into account the complete value chain, including refuelling and distribution infrastructure.

We welcome the Commission’s recognition of the global well-to-wake emissions framework in the FuelEU Maritime initiative. We need the IMO to recognise it as well. This will allow us to compare different fuels on an equal footing, so policies will account for the contribution of fuels, as well as their local emissions, performance and time needed for their deployment.

An economically efficient plan that maximises the value of existing assets, while incorporating increasing shares of renewable and low-carbon fuels, is necessary. BioLNG is well placed to decarbonise maritime transport as it uses extensive existing infrastructure [such as pipelines and port facilities], which makes it more cost-effective.

Regulatory bottlenecks need to be fixed to scale up the production of alternative fuels and their deployment in all hard-to-abate sectors [some proposals are awaiting approval by EU governments]. The alternative fuels infrastructure directive [AFID] [promoting] LNG, bioLNG, eLNG and green hydrogen uptake should be fully implemented. In the upcoming AFIR [the revision of the AFID; it is being changed to a regulation], natural gas – liquified and gaseous – must remain recognised as an alternative fuel. In parallel, energy taxation should fully recognise fuels’ contribution to decarbonisation and environmental performance in the transport sector.

There have been proposals to change the way energy and fuel is taxed in the EU. Are current taxation regimes incentivising the use of lower-carbon fuels in maritime shipping? How could they be changed?

The environmental ranking is to better reflect the environmental benefits of natural gas compared with oil and coal. The proposed ranking excessively penalises natural gas relative to oil products, [since] the environmental benefits of natural gas include not only GHG emission reduction but also reduction in other pollutants. The use of LNG as a maritime fuel should be [enabled] in the same way as low-carbon fuels for a transitional period.

As far as bioLNG is concerned, it is important for the maritime industry to have access to biomethane produced in Europe and injected into the grid, pending the production of significant volumes of physical bioLNG. The interconnected gas grid should be thought of as a single logistical facility that brings together transmission networks, distribution networks, storage facilities and LNG facilities. What is important in the end is that a green molecule displaces a fossil one.

Beyond taxation, we should consider the investor framework. One-third of EU member states have already set targets for LNG bunkering [ship fuel refilling]. Small-scale LNG infrastructure should be classified as sustainable in the taxonomy of the Sustainable Finance Programme. Projects developing LNG bunkering and refuelling stations can make a big contribution to decarbonisation.

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