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Decarbonising shipping

It might be a surprise to learn that maritime shipping contributes more total greenhouse gas emissions than the international airline sector. In fact, according to STAND.earth, it is estimated that international ocean shipping accounts for approximately 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions and if it were a country, it would be the world’s sixth largest climate polluter. Here, Stephen Hayes explains how to decarbonise this sector

Shipping plays a crucial role in our global economy, allowing goods to be transported efficiently across vast distances. The sheer size of modern container ships enables them to carry enormous quantities of products too, which makes international trade accessible and affordable. In fact, the OECD estimates that 90% of traded goods are transported on oceangoing vessels. 

Such efficiency does come at a cost to the environment. Therefore, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set ambitious targets to reduce carbon intensity of international shipping by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 2008 levels, with a long-term goal of reducing total annual greenhouses gases (GHG) emissions by at least 50% by 2050.

By lowering carbon intensity and total GHG emissions, the shipping industry can contribute to global efforts to limit temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with the aim to hit 1.5°C. But how can this be achieved? 

Alternative fuel

It could be argued that global trade relies on shipping, and that demand is increasing. Additional distances are being travelled due to disruption in the Red Sea, which is preventing ships from going across the Suez Canal – a shorter route for ships to take between Europe and Asia. 

With routes now taking 30% longer because they are having to circle the African continent, some shipping companies are exploring alternative fuels like liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a cleaner option. However, LNG still emits GHGs and has been criticised for not being a sustainable long-term option. 

The industry, in turn, is turning towards greener fuels such as methanol, ammonia and hydrogen. For example, AP Moller-Maersk, one of the world’s largest integrated logistics company, has set out a series of targets to tackle its GHG emissions across its operations. 

Maersk aims to achieve a 35% reduction in Scope 1 emissions by 2030 and an impressive 96% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2040. Additionally, the company also plans to cut Scope 3 emissions by 90%, all of which is possible due to the introduction of methanol fuelled container ships. 

However, transitioning to greener fuels is not without its challenges. It requires the retrofitting of existing ships or building new ones with different engines and fuel storage systems. That’s coupled with the production of green fuels, like methanol, still being in its early stages and needing advancements and investment in sustainable production methods.

Energy efficiency 

McKinsey reports that current AI and related automation technologies have the potential to automate up to 70% of the activities employees engage in today, greatly enhancing efficiency. 

For both onboard vessels and onshore, automation is increasingly used to achieve increased efficiency. This is particularly the case for environmental performance by optimising routes, speed and fuel consumption, as well as reducing emissions and noise. 

An example would be through Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS), which, as defined by the IMO, refers to a vessel capable of operating with varying degrees of autonomy. 

Tsvetkova and Hellstorm (2022) studied the value creation potential of MASS and found that AI enabled MASS will reduce inefficiency in the overall logistics chain. This is not only through the optimisation of ship operations, such as route optimisation and energy efficiency, but also other inter-related tasks, like cargo handling operations. 

Control technology

MASS require sophisticated control systems to operate autonomously, making decisions and executing actions without direct human intervention. In essence, control technology is the green key to cleaner seas by enabling the automation of various shipboard functions, including navigation, propulsion and cargo handling. 

For example, Beckhoff’s PC-based control software’s scalability and modularity allows it to adapt to the specific needs of different types of vessels and levels of autonomy. It integrates seamlessly with MASS control systems and sensors through open interfaces and communication standards, ensuring efficient data exchange and decision making.

While it might be a surprise to learn that maritime shipping contributes more total greenhouse gas emissions than the international airline sector, the real takeaway is that advanced automation helps to create a more sustainable shipping industry. 

With communication standards of MQTT, OPC UA, and EtherCAT, Beckhoff’s PC-based platform is well suited for integrating with the systems required for both onboard vessels and onshore to establish a more improved environmental performance. 

Stephen Hayes is managing director of automation and control technology specialist, Beckhoff UK.

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