Greener shipping with biofuels

Could bio-based fuels help the shipping industry to reach its ambitious climate goals in radically reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and achieving climate targets? European carriers have been the forerunners on cleaning the emissions Maersk announcing the most ambitious reductions, CMA CGM and MSC following closely behind with major CO2 reduction plans on their own.

It is not the first time Europe takes the first steps in making shipping greener and more sustainable. Once so ambitious exhaust gas sulfur elimination campaigns were first implemented in European waters, from where Emission Control Areas have then spread to North-American coasts and Chinese coastal waters. When it comes to sulfur emission limitations in the ECA waters, the scrubbers were once hailed as the go-to solution. Cheap and effective way of complying with the regulations.

There has however lately been a backlash on the scrubbers as worries on acidification of seawater has been a concern. The “dilution is not a solution” saying refers to the cheaper open loop scrubbers using sea water as alkali and eventually just moving the sulfur from the air to the sea. Many are worried the long-term impacts of this dilution of sulfur especially in coastal waters. Solving one problem resulted into a birth of another problem.

Could similar backlash be seen on CO2 reduction efforts? In last month’s blog I was hoping for the return of sails to merchant fleet, most likely sails will not make a return. Sadly. Instead most viable technology to cut the emissions from global shipping could well be the use of bio-based fuel solutions. The technology on bio-based fuels is advancing rapidly and scale of production is growing as demand increases.

However, there is a problem hindering the use of bio-based fuels in global shipping. When we are discussing on reduction of CO2, what it usually means, is the reducing the amount CO2 emitted from the ship’s exhaust pipes. Bio-based diesel fuels also produce CO2 when burned. Therefore, under current standards on measuring CO2 emissions, bio-based fuels don’t achieve their full potential.

The point with bio-based fuels is that life cycle emissions on biofuels are lower. When the trees grow, they take CO2 away from the atmosphere which is the emitted once bio diesel is burned. There is no additional carbon introduced to the atmosphere this way. Whereas when conventional diesel is refined from crude oil new carbon is introduced to the atmosphere as oil used to be buried deep under the surface of the Earth.

When looking biofuels this way, it is obvious how much better solution biofuels are for the environment. The problem comes with the way industry looks at emissions. Simply observing the amount of CO2 emitted from exhaust does not tell the whole story and ignores large part of the solution. I believe when discussing the carbon reductions in fuel heavy industry like shipping, we should start looking at the bigger picture on carbon emissions. What is amount of new carbon introduced to the atmosphere should be the main question. If someone invented a technology capturing existing CO2 from the atmosphere, transforming it into some liquid solution and burning it again, that would be carbon neutral fuel and the best possible invention in human history. However, our current standards of measuring would not recognize such innovation as CO2 would still be emitted from the exhaust.

Like with so many things, we need to look at the bigger picture when discussing the carbon reductions in shipping.

About Author

Tuomo Keltto

Tuomo Keltto is a logistics engineer who continued his studies in Seoul, South Korea. He studied at the Korean Government scholarship for a Master's degree in international trade and logistics. Now he is back in Finland and he works at Neste in Porvoo. - He has previously been in Steveco Hietanen for three summers as a temporary stevedore and as a foreman for one summer.