Electric Vessels Are Not Enough to Slash Shipping Emissions

Cargo ships burn dirty, carbon-intensive fuel and emit 3% of global GHGs.

Yara Birkeland ship
Yara Birkeland electric ship.

CFC via Yara

An autonomous electric cargo ship is slated to make its maiden voyage this year, but the vessel represents just one baby step in the long road toward reducing shipping emissions. 

The Yara Birkeland, which was developed by a Norwegian fertilizer company named Yara, runs on a massive 7 MWh electric battery that will be charged with clean power, since Norway produces most of its electricity with renewables. 

For its first trip, the Yara Birkeland will travel between the Norwegian towns of Herøya and Brevik, CNN reported last week

The vessel was built by a Norwegian shipyard named Vard Brattvåg and was delivered to Yara in November. Since then, technicians have been fitting technology that will allow the ship to navigate autonomously, including an automated mooring system and electric cranes to load and unload cargo.

The Birkeland is a small cargo ship. It is designed to carry approximately one hundred 20-foot containers, whereas the largest cargo vessels currently in operation transport around 20,000 containers.

It can travel for about 35 miles on a single charge and will replace diesel trucks that carry out approximately 40,000 trips a year to transport fertilizers between a manufacturing facility and two deep-sea ports from where the products are shipped to other countries.

According to Yara, using a battery-driven vessel instead of trucks will lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, as well as less traffic and safer roads in a densely populated area.

The Birkeland is set to become the world’s second fully electric cargo ship. The first one made its maiden voyage in southern China in 2017 but it is far from a zero-emissions vessel because China produces about 70% of its electricity by burning fossil fuels—primarily coal—and because the ship itself transports coal.

Other countries are likely to start operating electric vessels in the near future. In Japan, Asahi Tanker is developing a battery-powered tanker that will carry fuel for cargo ships; a company in Wellington, New Zealand, has ordered an all-electric ferry that will be able to carry up to 135 passengers, and an Australian shipbuilder called Austal has designed a line of high-speed electric ferries.

Experts say that electric vessels will be cheaper to run than traditional ships, which are typically powered by diesel engines. Before they become mainstream, however, ports will need to build charging facilities, which would require considerable investments.

Electric ships are suitable for short trips, but batteries cannot hold enough power for a transoceanic journey. Clean fuels such as green hydrogen and green ammonia could potentially allow the shipping industry to transport goods over long distances with low emissions, but they would require considerable investments and have yet to be adopted by major shipping companies.

Maersk last week said it had ordered eight ships that will run on 100% bio-methanol, but questions have arisen as to whether these vessels will allow the world’s largest shipping company to significantly reduce emissions. Some experts have accused Maersk of “greenwashing,” saying that it will be very challenging to produce large amounts of bio-methanol without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Shipping Emissions

Emissions from the shipping industry only represented 2.89% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, but they have been growing rapidly. That year, emissions from shipping reached nearly 1.1 billion metric tons, a 9.6% increase from 2012. 

According to the “Shady Ships” report released in July by Pacific Environment, air pollution by the shipping industry causes 6.4 million childhood asthma cases and contributes to 260,000 premature deaths globally because cargo vessels burn some of the world’s dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fuels.

The study found that in 2019, to import products into the U.S., 15 major retail companies including Walmart, Ikea, and Amazon, emitted as much climate pollution as the energy use of 1.5 million U.S. homes. The analysis only looked at shipping pollution in the U.S. and did not take into account the return trips of the vessels.

In 2018, countries worldwide agreed to reduce shipping emissions by “at least” 50% by 2050 from 2008 levels. To achieve that goal, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN group, said it plans to introduce energy efficiency requirements and carbon intensity targets over the next few years. 

Environmental organizations said, however, that the measures are not only insufficient but will actually lead to higher emissions over the next decade. A statement issued in November signed by WWF and the Clean Shipping Coalition said the IMO proposal “will fail to reduce emissions before 2023, will not peak emissions as soon as possible, and will not set shipping CO2 emissions on a pathway consistent with the Paris Agreement goals.”

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