Hydrogen and the high seas: Pioneering zero emission fuels for a sustainable maritime industry

By Charlotte Owen-Burge, Editorial Lead, Climate Champions | June 8, 2023

The maritime industry, a cornerstone of global trade, is at the crossroads of transformation. At the heart of this transformation is the Race to Zero, a global campaign rallying non-state actors to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Shipping, which moves over 80% of the world’s goods and contributes significantly to global CO2 emissions, plays a crucial role in this race. However, the journey to zero emissions is no small task, requiring innovations in fuel technology, strategic collaborations, workforce training, and infrastructure enhancements.

A critical piece of this puzzle is the development of zero emission fuels, a goal outlined by the Climate Champions’ 2030 Breakthroughs. This initiative aims for zero emission fuels to constitute 5% of international shipping’s energy demand by 2030. Hydrogen, with its immense potential as a zero emission fuel, presents a viable solution for this sector.

Alexander Saverys, CEO of CMB, a prominent shipowner company, outlines the transformative potential of hydrogen: “Hydrogen is ideal for smaller ship applications that can refuel frequently, like tugboats, harbour crafts, and offshore wind supply ships. Hydrogen-based e-fuels like ammonia could be pivotal in decarbonizing larger seagoing vessels.”

However, achieving the sustainability transition involves more than just finding cleaner fuels. Saverys points out that while fuel efficiency is a stepping stone in the energy transition, it alone will not ensure the decarbonization of shipping by 2050. A more comprehensive approach is needed to navigate the industry towards a greener future.

Such transformational changes require concerted efforts. Collaboration among stakeholders is essential in fostering the research, development, and adoption of hydrogen as a viable fuel source for shipping. Saverys underscores the importance of joint efforts in bearing the burden of pioneering low carbon solutions, stating that collaboration makes it easier to invest in projects that might not yield immediate profits but are critical for a sustainable future.

In addition to technological and operational changes, the transition to zero emission fuels necessitates a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. Shipping’s 2030 Breakthrough underscores the need to retrain and upskill 450,000 seafarers. Saverys believes crewing companies play a crucial role in this regard, already educating their staff about new fuels, enhancing their knowledge base, and implementing necessary safety measures.

Building infrastructure for the future is another critical facet of this transition. With the goal of 30% of global trade moving through climate-adapting ports, infrastructure enhancements are needed to make these ports more resilient while facilitating efficient trade operations. Saverys identifies bunkering infrastructure for new fuels, including bunker barges and fuel terminals for new e-fuels, as a crucial adaptation for these ports.

As part of their journey, CMB, in collaboration with Namibia’s Ohlthaver & List (O&L) Group, is spearheading an ambitious project to construct the country’s inaugural green hydrogen plant. This project signifies a strategic pivot for CMB, venturing into the realm of fuel production. Highlighting the rationale, Saverys states, “We selected Namibia due to its abundant, inexpensive renewable energy and its strategic location on key shipping routes. We’ll commence with a facility capable of producing one tonne of hydrogen per day, eventually scaling up to a 300,000 tonne green ammonia plant.” The project, designed to supply clean fuel for heavy transportation, will also play a crucial role in steering Namibia towards energy self-sufficiency.

Despite the promise, scaling up the production of hydrogen for maritime use presents challenges, the critical one being the cost difference between hydrogen and diesel. However, Saverys believes this gap can be bridged: “Diesel will become more expensive through CO2 taxes, and renewable hydrogen will become cheaper through technological advances. Government subsidies, through mechanisms like ‘Contracts for Differences’, can bridge the price difference temporarily.”

For centuries, the maritime industry has been vital to global trade. Now, it is on the cusp of a new era of sustainability. The Race to Zero emissions is a massive challenge, needing big changes, cooperation, and forward thinking. On this World Oceans Day, it’s important to take stock of the progress made by companies like CMB. They are navigating the complex process of sustainability transition effectively. Their commitment to a future with zero emissions is shown in projects like the hydrogen fuel initiative in Namibia. As the industry continues to change, it is not only driving global trade, but also shaping the future of our planet.

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