Shipping & Logistics

Maersk sets pace in plan to get rid of fossil fuels

Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, has pledged to fully de-carbonise by the year 2050. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

With the world under pressure to cut carbon emissions and contain climate change, Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, has pledged to fully de-carbonise by the year 2050. The announcement was made at the United Nations Climate Change talks in Katowice, Poland, and has been seen as a challenge to the industry to come up with radical steps to reduce its carbon footprint.

“We will have to abandon fossil fuels. We will have to find a different type of fuel or a different way to power our assets,” said Soren Toft, Maersk’s chief operating officer.

Maersk’s target is one of the most ambitious that the world has seen, coming just a few months after the United Nations International Maritime Organisation pledged to clean up after the industry.

Container ships carry about 80 per cent of global trade and currently use bunker fuel, a residue from crude oil that is cheaper but dirtier than petrol and diesel. This means that the industry contributes about 3 per cent of the world’s emissions.

"The initial strategy envisages for the first time a reduction in total Greenhouse Gas emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050 compared to 2008," the IMO said in a statement.

Major shipping nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United States had objected to the plan to decarbonise the shipping industry but they lost the vote.

Some countries such as the Marshall Islands, which are at risk of rising seas but are also a major flag state, had wanted a stronger commitment and the European Union wanted a 70 to 100 percent cut.

For Maersk, the challenge now will be to find a technology that works, to get the ships where they need to be with zero emissions, especially since each ship has a life span of between 20 and 25 years.

Ideas such as biofuels, hydrogen, electricity or even wind or solar power have been floated, but the company is optimistic that it will find one that works soon.

Currently, Maersk emits about 36 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gases, with container ships accounting for about 98 per cent of the total emissions from the group.

Container shipping has long been in the sights of environmentalists due to the dirty nature of bunker fuel but the industry has often resisted any radical changes, arguing it could disrupt global trade or make it more expensive.

The UN IMO however is set to introduce new regulations in the year 2020 that seek to reduce the levels of sulphur in bunker fuel, and help clean up the industry.

Shipping and aviation are two sectors that were not covered by the United Nations climate agreement, a deal struck in Paris in 2015 to cap global warming at "well under" 2.0 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

The aviation sector reached an emissions plan two years ago but shipping has taken longer because its reliance on long-distance ships that run on bunker fuel makes it harder to cut emissions.

Mounting pressure has grown on the IMO to come up with a solution to this problem, as it was tasked with limiting and reducing emissions from shipping under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

The Port of Mombasa has already started the going green process, in line with the global maritime initiative to help mitigate the effects of carbon emissions. From next year, KPA will have an off shore power supply that will force vessels that dock at the port for more than two hours to switch off their diesel engines and instead plug into the off shore supply during the time they are docked.

A single diesel engine of a single cruise ship is said to burn 20 metric tonnes of fuel and produce 60 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.

This is what the Sh 6.8 billion green energy project is seeking to address, and the Kenya Ports Authority hopes to cut its emissions by up to 40 per cent in the next 12 years.