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Break Up to Make Up - Can Green Methanol Help Clean Up Global Shipping?

When the world’s second-largest container-ship company makes a massive, long-term commitment to a carbon-neutral shipping fuel, you can’t help but take notice. Over the past few months, A.P. Moller-Maersk has placed orders for a dozen large, ocean-going container vessels that will be fueled by “green” methanol, which can be produced by “breaking up” water to produce hydrogen, then combining the H2 with captured CO2 to “make up” enviro-friendly bunkers. And, to ensure an ample supply of the climate-friendly fuels for its first 12 “boxships,” the shipping giant also has entered into strategic partnerships with six alternative fuel companies that by 2025 will be producing a total of at least 730,000 metric tons (MT) a year of either bio-ethanol or e-methanol — two chemically identical forms of green methanol. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss why Maersk thinks bio-methanol and e-methanol may be the carbon-neutral shipping fuels everyone’s been searching for.

The global shipping industry spent the 2010s ratcheting down emissions of old-school pollutants — mostly sulfur dioxide (SO2) — from the 50,000-plus tankers, dry bulkers, container ships, tankers, cruise ships, and other commercial vessels plying international waters. As we said in a number of blogs on the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) ever-tightening environmental rules, the maximum allowable sulfur content in marine fuel (or bunkers) used around most of the world plummeted from 4.5% in January 2010 to only 0.5% in January 2020, when IMO 2020 was implemented. As of January 1, 2015, the allowable sulfur content in bunkers used in the IMO’s Emission Control Areas (ECAs) — which include Europe’s Baltic and North seas and areas within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. and Canadian coasts — was slashed from 1% to 0.1%.

In the 2020s, it’s all about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially CO2. Global shipping activity accounts for about 3% of total GHGs and the IMO, which sets emissions and other rules for global shipowners, in 2018 laid out an initial strategy that calls for cutting ships’ CO2 emissions by 40% from their 2008 levels by 2030; reducing total GHGs by 50% (again from their 2008 levels) by 2050; and eliminating or fully offsetting GHG emissions by the end of the century. More specifically, the four-year-old plan calls for improving the efficiency of ship engines, reducing vessel operating speed (to improve their “miles-per-gallon” and thereby reduce their CO2 emissions per mile), and encouraging the use of alternative fuels. At a meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in November 2021, the committee said the IMO’s current goal of a 50% reduction in GHG emissions from shipping by 2050 doesn’t go far enough. MEPC added that it plans to initiate a revision of that goal by 2023, but it’s not clear yet whether it will shoot for net-zero GHGs by midcentury or a less-ambitious goal.

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