Two Shipping Companies Take Baby Steps Into Zero Emissions Future

Maersk moves toward bio-ethanol, and a Norwegian container ship uses batteries.

Yara Birkeland ship
Yara Birkeland electric ship, Norway.

Knut Brevik Andersen

When the Shady Ships report called out 15 US retailers for their humungous shipping emissions, campaigners from demanded a shift to 100% zero emission shipping by 2030 at the latest. That felt like a pretty ambitious demand then, and it feels like a pretty ambitious demand now. But two recent news stories suggest that zero and/or lower emission shipping is going to be a growing priority in the years to come. 

First up, shipping giant Maersk—which has been touting its efficiency and renewables efforts for some time—made headlines by ordering eight new ships, each of which is capable of running on 100% bio-ethanol. Here’s a snippet from their press release: 

In the first quarter of 2024, A.P. Moller-Maersk will introduce the first in a groundbreaking series of eight large ocean-going container vessels capable of being operated on carbon neutral methanol. The vessels will be built by Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) and have a nominal capacity of approx. 16,000 containers (Twenty Foot Equivalent - TEU). The agreement with HHI includes an option for four additional vessels in 2025. The series will replace older vessels, generating annual CO2 emissions savings of around 1 million tonnes. As an industry first, the vessels will offer Maersk customers truly carbon neutral transportation at scale on the high seas.

Of course, while headlines around the world zeroed in on the ‘carbon neutrality’ of these ships, there are a few important caveats. The first is that ‘capable of running’ is not exactly the same as actually running on any specific fuel. To Maersk’s credit, the press release itself makes this pretty clear: 

"Maersk will operate the vessels on carbon neutral e-methanol or sustainable bio-methanol as soon as possible. Sourcing an adequate amount of carbon neutral methanol from day one in service will be challenging, as it requires a significant production ramp-up of proper carbon neutral methanol production, for which Maersk continues to engage in partnerships and collaborations with relevant players."

The second caveat is—as folks who follow this space know—the fact that biofuels are by no means a silver bullet for low carbon transportation. Exactly where Maersk is going to source its bio-methanol, and whether those sources can scale to meet a significant portion of global shipping needs, could make all the difference between this being a symbolic move of limited value and a serious step toward lower emissions shipping, as veteran climate scientist and author Michael Mann called out on Twitter: 

Meanwhile Maersk isn’t the only shipping company moving toward some form of zero emission shipping, and bio-methanol is not the only fuel source in town. As CNN reports, Norwegian chemical company Yara International is launching a zero emission, 100% autonomous electric container ship

Now, it’s important to note that this ship is not going to be operating on international shipping routes any time soon. Carrying just 103 containers and powered by a 7MWh battery (technical details here), it’s really more designed for domestic routes up the Norwegian coast. That said, it will be an efficient way to take freight off the roads, and it will be operating largely on hydroelectricity—so it’s still a significant win for the climate. 

The question becomes whether these early-days projects can scale at the pace necessary to curb global emissions, and allow for some form of international shipping to continue in a zero emissions world of the future.