The COP21 outcome did not specifically mention shipping as a sector which should aim at emissions reductions, but it is clear to everybody that every sector, where emission levels can be reduced at a reasonable cost, should contribute towards the targeted carbon-neutral world economy. But how could we actually transform the global fleet of up to 100 000 commercial ships into carbon-neutrality by 2050? Because of the life span of ships, which is typically more than 20 years, we should actually start building only carbon neutral ships in 10 years from today in order to enable reaching this ambitious goal.
Especially long-haul ocean shipping has severe challenges in decreasing its carbon footprint, because currently only pre-bunkered fuels enable completion of the long voyages, where for example modern batteries do still not enable big enough energy storage capacity for the entire voyage. And when different fuels are compared, oil-based fossil fuels are leading the way because of their high energy content (energy units per mass unit) and low pricing when compared to any alternative fuels. Visionaries state that emission-free nuclear fission will finally solve the problem, but unfortunately the expected time for a roll-out of a small-scale fission plant has been 20 years for the last 20 years, hence we should probably be prepared to solve the carbon problem with the technologies which we already have in our hands.
I have a vision of a potential solution to the problem of decarbonizing long-haul shipping; in my opinion the target could be reached by using an innovative mix of currently available technologies, which would be made considerably cheaper than they are today by developing them further and by increasing their delivery volumes.
The first step in my vision is minimization of the power requirement of any long-haul ocean vessel: this can be made by using the best currently known vessel designs, and by adding the desired energy efficiency applications (such as innovative coatings, energy efficient propellers, trim optimization systems and hull vanes) to them – by these means the nominal propulsion power consumption of the vessel can be minimized.
The second step is to select the propulsion power technologies, which enable carbon-neutral production of the remaining propulsion power. If (and when) the vessel needs to be carbon neutral, the only currently available fuels which can do this trick are biofuels, or hydrogen fuel which is produced by using renewable energy. Anyhow the relatively high cost of biofuels and hydrogen creates a great business case for the only renewable energy, which can be captured on board the vessel in large amounts; the ocean wind. Thanks to the recent development and sea trials in co-operation between an innovative Finnish shipping company and a Finnish Rotor Sail start-up, the first commercially mature auxiliary wind propulsion technology has finally landed on this planet, and the wind can be again used to propel a ship in an efficient manner.
But what should we do now in order to enable this vision of a carbon-neutral long-haul ocean shipping in 2050? In my opinion we should actively develop and create markets for the technologies, the further development and future cost-outs of which can enable this vision.
This means that we should encourage the entire business of shipping to invest in modern vessel designs, in energy efficiency technologies, in biofuel-based propulsion and in auxiliary wind propulsion technologies. If (and when) this vision of a carbon neutral shipping is going to become a reality, we should make sure that we have given the technology developers enough time to develop their technologies into the state-of-the art and to minimize the cost of them. If we simply live the fairy-tale of the recently collapsed fuel prices and stop developing the promising new technologies because of their temporarily long payback periods, we can finally end up in paying a lot higher price for our carbon-neutral shipping in 2050.