New Ships on the Horizon

Recently a group of designers, naval architects, ship owners, operators, engine, machinery and equipment manufacturers gathered to explore the various possibilities available for meeting shipping’s need to rapidly decarbonise.

The event was led by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, University of Manchester.

Last week we abbreviated the science that points to the shipping sector’s need to reduce emissions by 85%. The challenge set to this group was to develop realistic technical solutions to enable a 90% CO2 reduction by 2050. The findings make interesting reading.

If shipping is to meet its significant decarbonisation challenge there are radical and/or step-change mitigation measures that warrant examination in terms of CO2 benefits, opportunities and trade-offs. Clearly technology is interconnected with operations and practices, and therefore the ‘step-change’ in absolute emission reduction may only emerge through addressing all three simultaneously.

Nevertheless, opportunities for decarbonising shipping are numerous. 

Detailed analysis of how to decarbonise the shipping sector through the use of novel or ‘niche’ technologies is under-researched.

Incentivising the use of renewable propulsion requires new confidence in their operational performance that can only be provided by full-scale demonstration projects and given the urgency of the challenge, there is no option but to trial new low-carbon ships for future trade.

Perhaps more fundamentally, and core to the decarbonisation problem in general, is a tendency to look for short-term financial gain from decisions that have very long-term repercussions impossible to ‘cost’ in the existing system. 

Whole system change is necessary, and will not emerge from conventional decision making tools.

Finally, it is clear that the shipping sector is intertwined with other parts of the economy, with decision making around low-carbon pathways in other transport modes and industries likely to influence and constrain decarbonisation in shipping. Competition for the same low-carbon fuels or for additional power from the grid will be rife, with technological development often happening more rapidly in other less complex, less conservative sectors.

Shipping does have some options where it has exclusive access to power sources that others cannot harness – wind propulsion ticks many boxes for shipping, but is the sector willing to take that risk? At the end of the day, there remains a naïve assumption that incremental and longer-term technology changes will be enough to avoid climate change. This is completely at odds with the science.