We’re Gonna Need a Greener Boat

COntainer ships carry just about anything. There is a lot of demand for all this. As a result, the world is demanding more of everything. “All over the world they’re expanding and expanding, and building more and more terminals to accommodate more and more vessels,” says Captain Erduan Murtaza, speaking on the bridge of his nearly 10 million cu. Container ship measuring a staggering 900 ft. Gerda Maersk.The windscreens are nine stories high and contain thousands of container stacks in dull primary colors. Onshore, in an Elizabeth, N.J., container terminal, many more of these steel boxes spread into the distance like disassembled pieces of a giant’s play set.

Built in 2009, it featured the following: Gerda Maersk It was the biggest container ship in the world. It’s nearly a quarter-mile long, with a hold seven stories deep. But even this monster has been dwarfed by the industry’s expansion—it’s able to carry only half the cargo of some recently launched ships. Murtaza claims that the industry’s growth is only increasing. “During this pandemic, people went crazy because they were closed inside their homes. You have no choice but to go online and start shopping. You go online and start shopping,” he says. “[All that stuff] has to come through these boxes.”

The advocates of maritime shipping like to use growth in this sector as a measure of economic wellbeing. They also trumpet shipping’s environmental bona fides, citing statistics showing that oceangoing vessels are one of the most energy-efficient ways to move goods around the world. Even though these vessels are more carbon-intensive than cargo aircrafts, nearly 3% of the global CO2 emissions come from shipping. And it’s unclear how that might change. Where sectors like automobiles and electricity grids are relatively straightforward to convert to renewable power, the constraints of physics mean there’s currently no simple way to move millions of tons of cargo across the oceans without fossil fuels. Even though ships have become more efficient in energy use over the past decades, emissions are still rising as the industry grows. Last year alone, the industry’s CO2 emissions jumped nearly 5%.

Murtaza’s employer, the Danish shipping giant Maersk, says it’s investing in a solution: replacing conventional fuels with so-called green methanol, as part of a plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2040, and hopefully begin turning the global shipping industry’s emissions trajectory in the right direction.

The lockdowns that slowed down the economy in 2020 meant cranes were left idle at Elizabeth, N.J. Shipping emissions rose 5% the next year.

Mark Lennihan—AP

Facilities are available all over the globe todayAbout 100 million tonnes of methanol are produced annually. Most of it is made from fossil fuels and is often used in industrial feedstock for plastic manufacturing. Using fossil-fuel-based methanol to power ships, as some pilot projects have done, is not much different climate-wise from simply burning the natural gas or coal it’s made from. Maersk instead is trying to make its ships more efficient with green methanol.

Maersk as well as others within the industry work with two versions. Biomethanol is the first, and it involves extracting the molecule form biomass such as crop waste. Electro-methanol or emethanol is created when CO2 and hydrogen are combined using water-based electricity. These “green” forms of methanol still release CO2 when they’re burned—but in both cases, it’s the same CO2 that had already been sucked out of the atmosphere, either by plants or machines, when the methanol was produced. That means their overall contribution to a ship’s carbon footprint is far lower than using new fossil fuels pulled up out of the ground.

Maersk received 12 new cargo ships that can run on methanol in the 2024-2025 period from Hyundai Heavy Industries Korea. In a pinch they could also be run on regular fuels. Maersk quickly signed agreements to obtain enough green methanol for them to begin sailing. The new vessels account for only about 2% of Maersk’s global fleet, but it’s a first step toward decarbonizing the world’s second biggest shipping company, says Morten Bo Christiansen, who leads Maersk’s climate efforts. These new vessels will replace old ships with those that can sail on methanol, or any other fossil-fuel alternative. “It was really a chicken-and-egg type situation,” Christiansen says. “No one was building green vessels because there was no green fuel, but no one produced green fuel because there were no vessels to burn it. This for us has been an attempt to break that.”

European Energy, a Danish wind- and solar company is one of those companies that are slated to make this fuel. It is constructing what’s billed as the world’s first large-scale e-methanol plant in Kasso, Denmark; Maersk will be buying half its output when production starts in the second half of 2023. The plan was the brainchild of Soren Knudsen Kær, a former engineering professor at Aalborg University, who is working with European Energy on the new facility. The goal is to help solve a crucial challenge in decarbonizing shipping: how to store large amounts of energy, transport it, and have it ready when you need it most—like in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—without using fossil fuels, which are very energy-dense, meaning they take up relatively little space and weight compared with other possible sources of power.

When it comes to storing green energy, batteries are often the most efficient approach, but they’re too bulky for use in airplanes and ships. A second option for hydrogen is to use huge electrolyzers with renewable energy to separate the hydrogen from the water. After that, ships can either use hydrogen to burn directly or to store it in fuel cells. But, says Kær, hydrogen gas is hard to store and transport, because it takes a lot of energy to compress it to a manageable volume. Around 2018, Kær started developing a pilot facility that would combine large amounts of hydrogen with carbon dioxide to form e-methanol, which can store energy in liquid instead of gaseous form, meaning it doesn’t need to be transported in high-pressure tanks. European Energy joined the team to support a larger version of this project a few years later.

Maersk isn’t the only company that’s eyeing methanol. CMA CGM, the world’s third largest container shipper, ordered six new methanol-powered container ships in June, and Swedish shipper Stena Bulk is building methanol-powered tankers with Swiss chemical company Proman. “Go back even a year and a half ago, we’d go to a shipping conference and we’d get an opportunity to present on the last panel of the final day,” says Greg Dolan, CEO of the Methanol Institute, an industry trade association. “Now there’s so much more interest in methanol. We’re getting keynote slots.”

Workers on a remote monitoring platform in Shanghai, home to the world’s largest port

Ding Ting—Xinhua/Getty Images

Even with the current trend,The long-term disadvantage of green methanol is that it’s a carbon-based fuel. To make it we have to use a lot. Fossil fuels are a great place to find the stuff, but we’re slowly cooking the earth as we keep pulling it up from underground and adding it to the climate system in the form of new carbon dioxide. The challenge is to find carbon that’s already in circulation and won’t tip the overall carbon balance any further. That would seem simple—too much CO2 is our problem, after all—but pulling that CO2 from coal power-plant smokestacks doesn’t create a truly green process, since it would only delay that extra fossil-fuel-sourced CO2 going into the air when ships burn the methanol that was made from the pollutant. “You’re going to use the carbon one more time, but it’s still gonna end up in the atmosphere,” says Alain Goeppert, a research scientist studying methanol systems at the University of Southern California. Taking CO2 directly from the atmosphere might seem like a good idea, but such technology (usually referred to as “direct air capture”) is expensive and energy-intensive, and some experts don’t think it’ll ever be cost-effective.

Instead, the best current option is to find sources of biogenic carbon that comes from plants or animals—either biomass that can be transformed into biomethanol through chemical processes, or CO2 released from burning or fermenting plants or other organic material that can be combined with hydrogen to make e-methanol. European Energy’s e-methanol project, for instance, relies on agricultural waste like cow manure for its supply of CO2. The problem is that there aren’t enough sustainable sources of biogenic CO2 to make more than a fraction of the methanol needed to decarbonize shipping. For example, even if Europe maxed out the use of its projected biomethane—one of the best sources of biogenic CO2—it would still account for only about a fifth of its estimated 2050 shipping needs, according to Faig Abbasov, shipping program director at environmental think tank Transport & Environment. “There’s not enough cow sh-t, basically,” he says.

Alternatives to methanol are available that may be more effective in decarbonizing shipping over the long-term. In some sense, hydrogen is a simpler solution, since you need it to make methanol anyway, but as Kær mentioned, it’s hard to store it. Experts believe that it is better to address the storage issue than to look for other solutions.

Some believe that ammonia might be an option. Similar to methanol and ammonia, it is available in large quantities for many industrial applications, including fertilizer production. It is mostly derived from fossil fuels and releases large amounts CO2. But it can also be produced from renewably generated hydrogen, and solve the same energy-storage problems as methanol, but without the e-fuel’s carbon-supply limitations. However, ammonia can pose a danger to marine and human life, as well as threatening their lives if it leaks. Methanol, however, is also toxic, so the risk of leaking would not be great. Maersk’s Christiansen, for one, fears some ports could ban ammonia because of its toxicity. Technology for ammonia engines also is more advanced than that for methanol. “Even if we solve all the safety and environmental challenges, it will be toward the end of the decade before we can get any ammonia out sailing,” he says. “For us that’s just too late.”

Some experts say e-methanol’s limitations mean that it is a dead end for shipping, and will only ever be useful for small corners of the industry, like in countries planning to make biofuel power plants a big part of their larger green transition, thus creating a source of biogenerated CO2 readily usable for e-methanol production. Shipping companies could invest in easy fixes now rather than investing in ammonia or other hydrogen options. This would lead to a waste of time and resource and a loss of an economic anchor. Ships that rely on methanol will be more expensive, because biogenic carbon is becoming harder and harder to find.

For now, Christiansen thinks there’s plenty of biomass to start hauling cargo across the world’s oceans on methanol-powered ships. And though he agrees that finding biogenic CO2 in the future will be a struggle—perhaps requiring direct air capture, if the technology comes to fruition—he believes methanol is the best current option.

Despite Maersk’s moves, the truth is that international shipping writ large hasn’t really made much climate progress. Some companies have done very little. Regulation is urgently needed to force an industry-wide shift, but the power to do that rests mostly in the hands of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an insular U.N. agency known as something of an old sailors’ club. International shipping is not covered under the Paris agreement, and in the lead-up to those pivotal negotiations in 2015, the IMO’s then Secretary General Koji Sekimizu actually said shippers should not be asked to cap their emissions at all.

That said, ahead of this year’s annual climate negotiations in Egypt, some countries are making a renewed push to green shipping. The Biden Administration revealed that Norway and the United States will launch a Green Shipping Challenge at COP27 on June 17. The goal, says the White House, is to encourage the industry “to come forward with concrete steps that will help put the international shipping sector on a credible pathway this decade toward full decarbonization no later than 2050.”

Scientists have warned that humanity needs to completely eliminate its carbon emissions by 2050 if it wants to prevent the most severe effects of climate change. The IMO’s current climate strategy only mandates cutting emissions in half by 2050. When the organization’s climate strategy comes up for revision in 2023, environmentalists expect it to set new goals. Observers claim that the shipping and corporate industries have a disproportionate amount of influence on IMO policy. In fact, some countries are even appointing representatives from the private sector to their delegations. “The name of the game,” says Bryan Comer, who leads the International Council on Clean Transportation’s marine program, “is delay as long as possible.” Maersk isn’t blameless in that regard; it has fought back against proposals to limit ship speeds, which would have immediate emissions benefits. Representatives from Maersk claim that the company supported a new proposal to reward efficient ships. However, the IMO eventually adopted a mix of elements of both of these proposals.

Shipping decarbonization may have a bigger problem. There is an implicit assumption that shipping will only get more expensive over time. According to analysts, international shipping is expected to triple between 2050 and 2050. This possibility may be counterproductive with the goal of a sustainable planet. For one thing, it makes the task of cutting the industry’s environmental footprint that much harder. For another, even if you could completely decarbonize shipping fuel, it still wouldn’t account for the emissions generated by the huge amount of new materials needed to keep growing the industry: concrete for ports, steel for hulls and containers, and plastics for the endless tides of disposable consumer items that fill them. “We’ve got this huge carbon bubble: ever bigger ships, moving more [goods] around,” says Lucy Gilliam, a policy officer at Seas at Risk, a Brussels-based NGO. “Where does this stop?”

Gilliam says the only way to decrease shipping emissions is to lower overall demand. That means people must stop throwing away things that they don’t need. But most people aren’t disposed to think about what their habits have to do with the growing armadas of super-size ships chugging through the world’s oceans.

“Those plug-in electric cars, they’re peanuts compared to this big boy,” says Captain Murtaza, before the Gerda Steams depart New Jersey for an 11-day trip to the Suez Canal. “Of course, I’m carrying 11,000 containers at once. But still, when I’m burning, I’m burning.” He gestures toward a window and Newark Bay beyond, where more than a dozen massive ships lie anchored on any given day. “It’s not just me. Look how many we are.”

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