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Shipping Contributes Heavily to Climate Change. Are Green Ships the Solution?


On a bright September day on the harbor in Copenhagen, several hundred people gathered to welcome the official arrival of Laura Maersk.

Laura was not a visiting European dignitary like many of those in attendance. She was a hulking containership, towering a hundred feet above the crowd, and the most visible evidence to date of an effort by the global shipping industry to mitigate its role in the planet’s warming.

The ship, commissioned by the Danish shipping giant Maersk, was designed with a special engine that can burn two types of fuel — either the black, sticky oil that has powered ships for more than a century, or a greener type made from methanol. By switching to green methanol, this single ship will produce 100 fewer tons of greenhouse gas per day, an amount equivalent to the emissions of 8,000 cars.

The effect of global shipping on the climate is hard to overstate. Cargo shipping is responsible for nearly 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — producing roughly as much carbon each year as the aviation industry does.

The Laura Maersk is the first of its kind to set sail with a green methanol engine and represents a significant step in the industry’s efforts to address its contribution to climate change. The vessel is also a vivid illustration of just how far the global shipping sector has to go. While roughly 125 methanol-burning ships are now on order at global shipyards from Maersk and other companies, that is just a tiny portion of the more than 50,000 cargo ships that ply the oceans today, which deliver 90 percent of the world’s traded goods.

The market for green methanol is also in its infancy, and there is no guarantee that the new fuel will be made in sufficient quantities — or at the right price — to power the vast fleet of cargo ships operating worldwide.

Methanol, which is used to make chemicals and plastics as well as fuel, is typically produced using coal, oil or natural gas. Green methanol can be made in far more environmentally friendly ways by using renewable energy and carbon captured from the atmosphere or siphoned from landfills, cow and pig manure, or other bio waste.

But the world today does not yet produce much green methanol. Maersk has committed to using only sustainably produced methanol, but if other shipping companies end up using methanol fuel made with coal or oil, that will be no better for the environment.

Ahmed El-Hoshy, the chief executive of OCI Global, which makes methane from natural gas and greener sources like landfill gas, said companies today were producing “infinitesimally small volumes” of green methanol using renewable energy.

“Companies haven’t done much in our industry yet quite frankly,” he said. “It’s all hype.”

Fuel producers still need to master the technology to build these projects, he said. And in order to finance them they need buyers who are willing to commit to long-term contracts for green fuel, which can be three to five times as expensive as conventional fuel.

Maersk has signed contracts with fuel providers including OCI and European Energy, which is building in Denmark what will be the world’s largest plant producing methanol with renewable electricity. The shipping company already has clients like Amazon and Volvo that are willing to pay more to have their goods transported with green fuels, in order to reduce their own carbon footprints.

But many other companies are not yet willing to pay the necessary cost for greener technologies, Mr. El-Hoshy said.

The missing piece, said Mr. El-Hoshy and others in the shipping and methanol industries, is regulation that would help level the playing field between companies trying to clean up their emissions and those still burning dirtier fuels.

The European Union is ushering in rules that encourage ships to decarbonize, including new subsidies for green fuels and penalties for fossil fuel use. The United States is also spurring new investments in green fuel production and more modern ports through generous domestic spending programs.

Some developing countries, and nations that export low-value goods like farm products, say that strict regulation would raise shipping costs and be economically harmful.

Proponents of the regulation — including Maersk — say it’s necessary to avoid penalizing those who are trying to clean up the business, and provide certainty about the industry’s direction.

“There has to be an economic mechanism by which you level the playing field so that people are incentivized and not punished for using low-carbon fuels,” said John Butler, the chief executive of the World Shipping Council, which represents container carriers including Maersk.

“Then you can invest with some confidence,” he added.

Still, Maersk acknowledges that green methanol is unlikely to be the final solution. Experts say that the fuel’s reliance on finite sources of waste, like corn husks and cow manure, mean there will not be enough to power the entire global shipping fleet.

In an interview, Vincent Clerc, the chief executive of Maersk, said that the entire maritime sector was unlikely to ever be powered predominantly by methanol. But Maersk had no regrets about moving some of its fleet from fossil fuels to methanol now, then adopting new technologies as they become available, he said.

“This marks a real systemic change for this sector,” Mr. Clerc said, gesturing toward the vessel piled high with 20-foot containers in front of him.

Eric Leveridge, the climate campaign manager for Pacific Environment, said his group was glad that Maersk and other shipping companies were moving toward more sustainable fuels. But the organization is still concerned that “it is more for optics and that the impact is potentially being exaggerated,” he said.

“When it comes down to it, even if there is this investment, there’s still a lot of heavy fuel oil ships on the water,” he said.



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