Sailing Into A Climate-Challenged Future – Is Shipping Able To Cope?

2018 can be viewed as the year of pivotal climate action when the world started demanding change. The global warming debate intensified when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that surpassing the 1.5 degrees rise in global temperature carries huge risks for humans and nature alike. Global emissions need to be lowered dramatically and the maritime industry has a significant stake in making it happen. This is a call that rings true with Wärtsilä as the corporation’s purpose is to enable sustainable societies with smart technology.

Initiating ‘An Oceanic Awakening’ in 2018, Wärtsilä set out to rally the maritime industry into action and to help accelerate the adoption of environmentally friendly marine technology. As global cargo fleet capacity continues to grow on average three percent per year, the sea as a means of transportation retains its relevance in the future, but the growth also puts pressure on finding cleaner and more environmental solutions in maritime. This is a challenge that Wärtsilä is taking head on, together with its customers, partners and other stakeholders.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), is the specialised agency of the U.N. responsible for regulating shipping. In April 2018, in reaction to the demand to tackle climate change, the IMO committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the total shipping fleet by at least 50 percent by 2050 from 2008 levels. However, if left unchecked, shipping emissions are set to as much as triple from 2008 to 2050 – in line with the IMO’s high growth forecast that sees a potential threefold increase of the world fleet. The ultimate aim, under the agency’s ‘levels of ambition’, is to phase out shipping emissions entirely by 2100.

container ship at sea
Image for representation purpose only

Along this route to the 2050 requirements and beyond, there are of course legislative milestones. And by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions from individual ships – meaning primarily CO2 – must be cut by 40 percent on average compared to 2008 levels, for all vessels, new or existing.

To require a complex industry to make the step-changes needed to seriously address the sustainability targets set out by the United Nations, is not an easy thing. Nevertheless, the targets are there and the maritime industry is having to undergo a process of evaluation to establish the most realistic and cost-effective means of meeting them.

It must be said that, based on predicted demand for cargo transportation between now and 2050 the number of vessels will grow and thus emissions reduction targets on a vessel level need to significantly surpass those on the fleet level. Around 70 percent reductions on the vessel level are needed to enable a 50 percent fleet level emission cut, which means the combined emissions of all ships in the fleet. Whichever kind of economic growth scenario is assumed to be realistic, one thing is certain: a higher number of vessels will lead to more emissions and the industry has a relatively short amount of time to course correct because vessels built today might still be in operation in 2050.

Whilst being the most cost-effective and energy efficient means of transportation, shipping still withstands a multitude of inefficiencies, waste, pollution, long waiting times in ports and abundant safety risks. For container shipping alone, global fleet-wide waste from inefficient fuel usage, owing to sub-optimal voyage planning and execution, is estimated to cost about 14.5BEUR annually. 220MEUR is wasted on other inefficiencies such as deployment of crew, maintenance, spares, oils and facilities issues. Active vessels spend on average 35 percent of their time waiting for and dealing with port operations and a further 6 percent of their time at anchorage. This leads to an ever-growing need for this waste to be addressed alongside the environmental side effects.

Wärtsilä, through its Smart Marine vision, has determined to provide the market with low-CAPEX smart technologies that when combined can push vessel operations toward becoming more cost-effective, efficient and climate-friendly. The use of connectivity, real-time communication and data analytics in voyage optimisation, operation and energy management are crucial elements in the journey towards sustainable shipping. But choosing the right energy source, says Wärtsilä, is just as important on the journey towards a more sustainable maritime future.

Existing solutions to meet the upcoming 2020 legislation

From 2020, the Sulphur content of a ship’s bunker fuel will be limited to 0.5 percent, from its currently easy-to-meet 3.5 percent. Looking at the upcoming legislation, the technological pathways to compliance with the 2020 Sulphur limitations are relatively clear. These are being addressed in essentially three ways. The use of low Sulphur content fuel now being made available by oil companies is perhaps the simplest to adopt. The question marks, however, relate to cost and availability.

An alternative option is to continue using the same fuel oil as before, but with scrubbers fitted to clean the exhaust. The key tech component here is the reactor in the exhaust system that cleans up the exhaust gases before they go out into the atmosphere. It is a practical solution but there is naturally an investment cost to be considered.

The third choice and one that is being adopted more and more when building new ships is to have the engines run on liquefied natural gas (LNG). Wärtsilä experts point to global trends as an indication of how transformative gas can be in the near future. As LNG burns emphatically cleaner than distillate fuels territories like the US, China and Europe are rapidly switching to gas as a fuel for heavy vehicles, creating the infrastructure therewith and this movement further elevates LNG as a viable bunkering fuel for seagoing vessels. Market watchers foresee an imminent inflection point where demand for LNG will significantly increase.

And there is nothing that the internal combustion engine does with Heavy Fuel Oil that cannot be done with LNG. Dual-fuel engines capable of running on both regular fuel and LNG were introduced to the maritime sector some 30 years ago by the global manufacturer, Wärtsilä, so this is a well-established and proven technology. LNG contains virtually no Sulphur, thus making 2020 compliance easier.

Future fuels

After passing the first milestone – Sulphur compliance – the going gets far tougher. None of the solutions for compliance with the Sulphur regulations alone can get the CO2 levels down to where the IMO wants them, but a combination of different solutions thereof can certainly make significant headway. This means that alternative clean-burning solutions too have to be found to power ships across the oceans of the world.

There are, of course, existing ways of propelling a ship with zero or almost zero emissions, battery power being the most obvious. But while current energy storage capacity is sufficient for short voyage sailing, further development is still required to make it a technologically feasible, robust and cost-effective solution for larger vessels and it may even never become a viable option for the largest of ships. It is also necessary to consider emissions from well-to-wake when evaluating future fuels to complement energy solutions – bringing to attention to the production of the fuel as well as the way it is transformed in mechanical energy.

There is speculation that fuel cells may one day emerge as technically and economically viable power solutions of the future, but Wärtsilä believes the internal combustion engine will continue to play a critical role at a time when the industry is faced with difficult questions on how to move forward. Therefore, the corporation recommends that shipping companies should look to using future-fuels compatible with existing combustion engine technology, but without the harmful emissions. Put another way, in the run-up to the 2030 milestone, the most economically viable and reliable solution for ships being built from now on comprises a combustion engine running on LNG that is supported by the use of connectivity, real-time communication and data analytics in operation and energy management.

Can supplies meet demand?

Wärtsilä, and other major industry providers, is investing heavily in research on possible alternative fuels. These include bio-LNG and synthetic LNG, ammonia and hydrogen fuel cells. There are considerable obstacles to overcome before their widespread use can be adopted, however. Let’s not forget that the introduction of a new fuel – LNG – required a long period of testing and development of technologies covering the whole supply chain which finally resulted in the adoption of the IGF code in 2015.

Apart from the potential suitability of these alternative fuels for meeting the legislation, other questions to which answers are needed include the likely costs involved, the existence or not of an adequate supply chain and futureproof infrastructure and will there be enough to meet demand. Here, the flexibility of multi-fuel combustion engine technology comes to the fore. As experience has shown, such engines can switch seamlessly between different fuels so if one is not available, others can be used.

A digital seascape beckons

Wärtsilä’s Smart Marine vision is a forward-looking initiative that takes a big picture approach to reach the IMO’s targets and improving sustainability in general. In a Smart Marine Ecosystem, vessels will be technologically smart, using cloud-based software and digital technology to substantially increase efficiencies that will optimise the use of energy, so that fuel consumption is minimised. These ships will sail between smart ports that manage traffic flows extremely efficiently so that waste, such as ships waiting to dock in congested harbours, is eliminated. The vision also foresees new business models emerging whereby greater cooperation between shippers will ensure that ships sail with full cargo loads, thus enabling more cargo to flow using the optimal number of vessels.

This kind of ecosystem will certainly be a major component of the ultimate solution to 2050 compliance. There will be all-electric vessels sailing short sea routes, and new technologies will be developed between now and then. But essentially, it seems that the big change will be in the fuel mix used by the engines. The fuel-flexible combustion engine, therefore, presents itself as a future-proof technology which will enable the industry to meet future targets as and when alternative and renewable fuels become available.

Future fuels and where to invest?

The world of shipping is being re-shaped and investments in sustainable production of bio and synthetic fuels are needed today if they are to become broadly available post-2030. Leveraging radical and transformative innovation is no doubt the way to tackle emissions. Today, LNG presents itself as one of the best and most economical pathways to decarbonisation, owing to its cleaner burn, compatible pricing and established supply infrastructure – The same infrastructure that can be used for future fuels. Therefore, the combustion engine remains the stalwart of shipping because the reciprocating engine enables fuel flexibility leaving the doors wide open for the future renewable liquid and gaseous fuels as and when they become compliant, market-ready and available.


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