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Decarbonising world shipping means eliminating fossil fuels - is that what we really want to do?

In weighing the wisdom of the decarbonisation campaign in shipping, one soon discovers that this has become a public debate with only one socially acceptable side.

Try Googling for "opposition to decarbonisation", and up pop articles criticising those with the temerity to oppose decarbonisation. Yet when one digs deeper, the other side surfaces fearfully like a mole emerging from its subterranean lair.

The anti-decarbonisation argument boils down to the huge costs involves for scant return, It also requires the elimination of fossil fuels, with gains in human health being assumed rather than explained.

Globally, fossil fuels currently provide 81 per cent of global primary energy. In the US, the number is 80 per cent. Wind and solar account for just one per cent of energy needs globally two per cent in the United States.

Writing in Resources, the publication of Washington think tank Resources for the Future, research fellows Daniel Raimi and Alan Krupnick said: "Even if they grow rapidly, the sheer scale of the energy system means that even the most rapid transition [from fossil fuels] would take many decades."

Messrs Raimi and Krupnick also said the growth in renewables is dependent on state subsidies while fossil fuels continue to offer the lowest cost option.

"This is particularly true in the United States, where the shale revolution will likely provide a low-cost supply of natural gas for decades to come," they said.

"According to MIT’s Future of Solar Energy study, solar to power one-third of the US 2050 electricity demand would require 4,000 to 11,000 square kilometres (for context, Massachusetts’ area is 27,000 square kilometres). Wind farms take more land for the same power - 66,000 square kilometres There are concerns about habitat fragmentation, loss of endangered species and other impacts on the environment," they said.

Nonetheless, shipowners have to contemplate their plans in light of the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules, which seem to emerge instantly as orders of the day in the world's coast guard organisations.

Writing in Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide, Nikos Roussanoglou noted the IMO agreed to short term measures to address global warming. The measures will see even stricter newbuilding designs adopted via the energy efficiency design index (EEDI), the Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP) and new measures called the Energy Existing Ship Design Index (EEXI) and Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII).

Said Gibson Shipbrokers: “What shape these measures will take is up for debate, but one key issue is carbon pricing. Many industry bodies, regulators, and even individual market players are calling for carbon pricing to be introduced to incentivise uptake in green technology."

Hydrocarbon-based fuels are likely to remain cheaper than greener alternatives meaning that in pure economic terms, zero emission/low carbon fuels are never going to make financial sense without some form of incentive, Mr Roussanoglou wrote.

Biofuels, including bio-LNG and bio-MGO are expected to be far more expensive than conventional fuels. Ditto for green ammonia and hydrogen. Carbon taxes might be the only way to make future fuels more competitive, he said.

"The other elephant in the room is emissions from LNG," said Gibson. "LNG is lower carbon, low SOx and NOx, as well as emitting lower particulate matter. However, when total GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from the full supply chain are accounted for, emissions can be higher than conventional fuels," said Mr Roussanoglou.

A study by the International Council on Clean Transportation showed that over 20 years, there might be no climate benefits in using LNG when upstream and downstream emissions are accounted for.

"This is down to the fact that methane traps 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 over a 20 year time period. However, over a 100-year timeframe, the maximum life cycle GHG benefit of LNG is a 15 per cent reduction compared with MGO, and only when high pressure dual fuel engines are used, and upstream methane emissions are well controlled.

Competing studies do show different results. A study by Sea\LNG, an LNG lobby, found that the use of LNG as a marine fuel led to a GHG reduction of 21 per cent over the entire life cycle, depending on the engine technology.

Gibson concluded that there is a debate whether LNG should be used as a transition fuel. Proponents argue that LNG dual fuel engines could be retrofitted to use cleaner burning fuels such as green ammonia and hydrogen as and when they become commercially viable, although such a move would incur retrofitting costs.

Engine manufactures will also continue to improve methane reduction, yet it is emissions from natural gas extraction, liquefaction and transport which cannot be controlled by the shipping industry.

"What the industry needs right now is clarity as to where LNG sits within the IMO’s climate goals and the likely shape and form of its medium and long-term goals. Until the industry has more guidance, the best thing many owners can do is nothing, although this is exactly the opposite of what is needed to address climate change," said Mr Roussanoglou.

There appears to be various factions in the debate, if it can be called that. Some hope the maritime carbon tax will fall on its face the way the European Union's attempts to impose one, via carbon trading, did on commercial aviation in 2014. Others hope that whatever happens, its bark will be worse than its bite.

With the defeat of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, undemocratic multilateral organisations have gained an increasingly powerful role. Gaining new powers from health and safety mandates, fewer and fewer laws that have teeth are subject to legislative oversight, but are crafted by civil servants who act more and more in the communist mode without the consent of the governed.

In this, the major corporations are in league with bureaucrats who favour ever-more stringent health and safety mandates, as they have the clout to meet skyrocketing compliance costs over less affluent rivals. Hence the counterintuitive political division between Wall Street and Main Street America is growing, and reflected in similar bifurcations worldwide.

The main argument put forward by commercial aviation to stave off the EU attempt to impose a carbon tax (aka carbon trading) was nested in the reality that airliners would cease to call at European destinations to the extent they were, as well as the increasingly popular argument that it was better that UN handle such things rather than countries or trading blocs, thus creating and unmanageable regulatory patchwork worldwide. Also influencing the debate six years ago was that that many Europeans were employed in commercial aviation. So while it was of no political importance that the toothless European Parliament voted 458 to 120 against the all-powerful European Commission's carbon tax, it certainly told where the popular will was and would likely remain.

But this is not the situation today. First, the issue is being is handled by a truly multilateral organisation, the UN. This refutes the main criticism that sunk the EU carbon tax the commercial aviation sector opposed six years ago. Second, there is no sizeable voting bloc of respectable citizens - as there is in commercial aviation - to oppose this. Seafarers are a balkanised mass, the wretched of the earth, who seldom live in the countries where they nominally reside, and mostly countries without meaningful democratic institutions. Moreover, they are part of an industry which prides itself on headcount reduction, further balkanised by the multinational nature of its business and personnel.

There was once a defiant "show-me" attitude held by a more united shipping community when it would have to be shown that a cited danger was as dangerous as alleged before a practice could be banned. In those days, the UN's marine agency was called the International Maritime Consultative Organisation. Perhaps it is time to put the "C" back in the IMO and see it consults rather than regulates unilaterally.

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Is there any reasonable expectation that international regulations will be willing to explore the fundamental needs to decarbonise shipping without discussing that it also means the elimination of fossil fuels on which the world depends?

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