Here’s How The Shipping And Airlines Sectors Plan to Hit Carbon Neutrality

by | Apr 14, 2023

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The global community has its eye on meeting the Paris climate agreement — to limit temperature increases and to be carbon neutral by 2050. While most companies have set such goals, some enterprises are having a more challenging time: shipping and airlines, which are hard to electrify and thus decarbonize. 

That doesn’t mean they are not trying. Shipping is a linchpin in the global economy, with 50,000 vessels carrying 90% of the world’s cargo. But the sector is a heavy polluter, necessitating innovative solutions to curb emission levels — especially because the maritime trade’s deliveries will triple by 2050. Now is the time to invest in alternative fuels and ports. Indeed, the industry aims to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Meantime, the airline industry contributes about 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions — a small amount, which could spike if the sector’s attempts to cut CO2 levels are unsuccessful. It is focused on sustainable aviation fuels, buying more efficient aircraft, and trading carbon credits.

Let’s Start with Shipping

The shipping sector emits about 1,000 million tons of CO2 annually, equating to 13% of the greenhouse gas emissions from global transport. But shipping giant Maersk has ordered at least 13 new ocean-going ships using only carbon-neutral fuels, which will arrive between 2023 and 2025. It sets out to operate the vessels on carbon-neutral e-methanol or bio-fuels. But it will be challenging because methanol production has to ramp up.

Once Maersk hits the high seas with its new carbon-friendly vessels, it says that its CO2 levels will fall by 1 million tons or 3% — a respectable cut in its current CO2 levels of 33 million tons. It invests in green methanol produced from sustainable biomass, biodiesel, and green ammonia, which makes no greenhouse gases. More than half of Maersk’s 200 largest customers have set – or are setting – ambitious science-based or zero-carbon targets for their supply chains. Its customers include Amazon, Microsoft, and Disney. 

“The most progressive technologies use advanced duel-fuel engines,” says Allyson Browne, climate campaign manager for Pacific Environment, in an interview with this writer. “The engines must run on something other than heavy fuels or liquefied natural gas — like green ammonia or green methanol, which are stepping stones until green hydrogen is scaled up.”

Green ammonia is an interim step for shippers — a fuel that wind and solar power can produce and that traditional engines or fuel cells can use. DNV GL predicts widespread adoption of ammonia fuel will begin in 2037 — expected to make up 25% of the maritime fuel mix by 2050. However, today’s vessels can’t use it, while producing it is carbon-intensive.

To be clear, ships’ engines use heavy fuels. But they also have auxiliary engines to run equipment and kitchens. At the same time, once the ships reach the dock, they must load and unload, requiring trucks and cranes that can also run on electricity. For example, the Port of Los Angeles has spent $500 million beefing up its infrastructure and is now electrifying its yard equipment.

The Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, which oversee about 4,000 heavy pieces, want to hit net zero by 2030. Both are decarbonizing their equipment — the things that move containers after they come ashore.

Moreover, the two ports have joined with the Port of Shanghai, China, to create the world’s first transpacific green shipping corridor. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gases by using ships operating on carbon-free fuel by 2030. “These ports are making steps toward investing in zero-emission fuels and electrifying onshore power. We need them to send a clear market signal to accelerate this transition,” says Pacific Environment’s Browne.

And now the airlines

Electric transportation is transforming surface vehicles. In 2020, there were 48 models, and by 2024, there will be 134. Air travel is a potential market — assisted, in part, by the auto companies.

Take Air Canada, which aims to be net zero by 2050: It has ordered 30 hybrid aircraft from Heart Aerospace — a plane called ES-30. Not only has the airline taken a $5 billion stake, but so has Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates. The aircraft has an all-electric range of 124 miles — double that if combined with jet fuel. It flies at an altitude of 20,000 feet and holds 30 passengers. Four electric motors power the plane using lithium-ion batteries and two turbo generators that can run on sustainable aviation fuels. It has a charging time of 30 to 50 minutes. Earlier this year, Heart completed a test flight.

“Commercial aviation accounts for about 2%-3% of all global carbon emissions. Air Canada monitors its GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions closely and is committed to mitigating its environmental footprint,” the company says. 

Green hydrogen-derived sustainable aviation fuels may take off within 15 to 25 years. Consider Delta Airlines: Louisiana-based DG Fuels supplies it 385 million gallons with 75%-85% fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional jet fuel.

Various forms of renewable energy make up sustainable aviation fuels. That includes food waste, animal waste, and sewage sludge, which easily mix with jet fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy says its carbon footprint can be 165% smaller than petroleum-based jet fuel. A study by Clean Sky 2 and Fuel Cells & Hydrogen 2 says that hydrogen-powered aircraft could be ready for flight as early as 2035, although 2050 may be more doable for longer flights.

“Our ultimate goal is to achieve climate-neutral aviation by 2050. Turning this ambition into reality requires the seamless integration of a range of important new technological advancements, one of which is hydrogen-powered aircraft,” says Axel Krein, Executive Director of Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking.

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