Is It Possible To Decarbonize Shipping?

8:28 minutes

an aerial shot above a container ship loaded with containers on the ocean. its smoke stack emits smoke exhaust
Credit: Shutterstock

It’s said that 90% of all goods at some point travel on a ship. Much of that transportation is on container ships, gargantuan vessels that carry thousands of the 20-foot or 40-foot shipping containers that serve as the foundation of the global economy. 

But those big cargo ships have a massive energy appetite, and the “bunker oil” fuel they devour is notoriously dirty. If the global shipping industry was a country, it would be the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitting country in the world.

Lee Kindberg, head of environment and sustainability for North America for the shipping giant Maersk, joins Umair Irfan to talk about the company’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Maersk recently placed an order for a dozen methanol-fueled cargo ships, the first of which it plans to launch next year. 

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Segment Guests

Lee Kindberg

Lee Kindberg is head of Environment and Sustainability for North America at Maersk, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Segment Transcript

UMAIR IRFAN: For the rest of the hour, another story on transportation and the climate. It’s said that 90% of all goods at some point travel on a ship. Much of that is on container ships, these gargantuan vessels that carry tens of thousands of 20-foot shipping containers. And they serve as the foundation of the global economy.

But those big cargo ships have a massive energy appetite and the fuels they use are notoriously dirty. If the shipping industry was a country, it would rank sixth in the world in greenhouse gas emissions. However, the industry is also constrained by scale and cost. Is it possible, then, to clean up some of the largest vehicles on Earth?

Joining me now is Lee Kindberg. She’s the head of Environment and Sustainability for North America for the shipping giant, Maersk, which recently placed an order for a dozen methanol-fueled cargo ships. Welcome to Science Friday, Lee.

LEE KINDBERG: Well, thank you, Umair. Glad to be here.

UMAIR IRFAN: Picking up on that point of scale, can you talk to me about how big cargo ships can get? What kind of fuel do they use? And what are the implications of that?

LEE KINDBERG: Well, the biggest container ships today are about 400 meters long, which basically means they’re the length of four football fields. And they might contain 20,000 of those 20-foot containers, although today an awful lot of the containers are 40 footers, so maybe 10,000 40-foot-long containers that are the size of a city bus. And that container might hold a million LEGOs or 10,000 running shoes.

UMAIR IRFAN: And to get a massive vehicle like that moving, like how much energy does it take? What kind of fuel do you have to use?

LEE KINDBERG: Well, we do use a very energy-rich fuel. And it is basically what’s left over after you refine crude oil to make gasoline and diesel and jet fuel and so forth. And what’s left over is sort of thick and sludgy. It’s not as thick as asphalt, but it’s down there in that general cut. And it’s very energy-rich. Because, remember, these vessels are going 2 and 1/2 or even longer weeks between filling stations. So we need a fuel that is very energy-rich, and quite frankly, need something that is low cost.

UMAIR IRFAN: It seems then also efficiency is a key variable that you’re always trying to pursue here as well?

LEE KINDBERG: Absolutely, and vessels have been getting bigger, you’ve probably seen. And as they get bigger, we get more and more energy efficient. But, you know, ocean shipping is the most energy-efficient way to move cargo long distances.

UMAIR IRFAN: So then, given that the industry is already running very efficient and very cheap, how does Maersk plan to decarbonize its fleet? What kind of technologies is it looking at?

LEE KINDBERG: Well, we’ve made a serious commitment to reducing our carbon footprint, which by the way, for our ocean fleet is about 33 million tons of greenhouse gases a year. That’s not sustainable. And our big customers, more than half of them, have set decarbonization goals of their own. And they’re now looking to us to say, we want you to move this cargo in a way that’s also carbon neutral.

And so we, initially, set a target of completely decarbonizing our fleet by 2050. Then earlier this year, once our crystal ball sort of cleared up a little bit and we could see some of the technologies that were available to us, we leaned in and said we will hit that by 2040. And we’ll do it across all of our operations, so the ocean fleet but also the marine terminals, the trucks, the warehouses, and so forth.

Methanol is the way that we see that we can make an impact quickly, to make an impact this decade. Because if we’re going to hit 2040 with vessels that have an average lifetime of 20 years, then this has to be the decade of action.

UMAIR IRFAN: I’m Umair Irfan, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So could you tell me a little bit more about methanol, like how similar or different is it to the conventional heavy fuel oil that you use in conventional container ships?

LEE KINDBERG: Well, now, the methanol that’s out there today is one of the most common industrial chemicals in the world. So it’s very well known and very well characterized. But that’s not green methanol. And what we’re planning to do is to use green methanol, so methanol that’s made either from plants or from agricultural waste or from electrolysis and carbon capture, in other words, renewable sources. That way, you can actually have a net zero carbon shipping.

UMAIR IRFAN: So not only do you need a green fuel, you also need a green supply chain to provide that fuel.

LEE KINDBERG: Absolutely, and what we’re having to do, since there isn’t that much green methanol out there today, certainly not at the scale we need to decarbonize these big ships, we’re having to work with those potential future suppliers of new fuels, some of them start-up companies with new technologies and some of them very large producers of methanol. But we also need to let them know that if they build a refinery, we’ll be there to buy the fuel. They also need to let us know that if we build the ships, there’ll be a place to get the fuel for those ships.

UMAIR IRFAN: Is methanol on par in terms of energy density that you mentioned earlier with heavy fuel oil? Or are there any trade-offs there?

LEE KINDBERG: There are some trade-offs with methanol. Methanol does have a lower energy density, but it is a liquid. So you can pump it around and store it in tanks that are odd shapes and put into all the nooks and crannies of the ship. It is also more flammable than standard, what we call bunker fuel. But it doesn’t have to be heated to pump it around. So there’s some trade-offs there.

UMAIR IRFAN: Now, while you’re pursuing methanol, there’s other shipping companies looking at other kinds of techniques, things like battery electric ships, ammonia-powered ships, hydrogen, some even using wind energy sails, bringing those back. I’m curious, like what’s your thought about the other options that are out there? How do they fit into the equation?

LEE KINDBERG: You know, we’ve actually selected three areas to focus in. One is classic biodiesel, like what you might use in a diesel truck, although we have set standards that say that that fuel has to be sustainable. It can’t compete with food production. It can’t result in massive changes in how land is used. So we’ve started out with some biodiesels. And those products are available today, but on a limited basis.

The next fuel that we see in terms of quick implementation and reliable implementation is methanol. And so that’s where we’re going with these vessels that are going to be launched in 2023 and 2024. And then down the road, there is some talk about fuel cells. There’s talk about ammonia as a fuel.

There’s talk about a number of other technologies. Those technologies are not ready yet. They’re being worked on, but they’re not something you could go and build a ship around in the next couple of years.

UMAIR IRFAN: And finally, you know, we’ve been paying a lot closer attention to the global supply chain with the COVID-19 pandemic. But also now more recently with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there’s been disruption to global fuel supplies. And I’m wondering, having a more diverse fuel supply, does that help you? Does that help you hedge against other shocks? And is that part of your strategy?

LEE KINDBERG: That absolutely is a consideration. And we’ve all become much more aware of, first of all, the fact that supply chains even exist, and second, that supply chains need to be, not only just in time but also just in case, that they have to have that business resilience considered in the design. These new vessels that we’re building that will run on green methanol are actually what’s called a dual fuel vessel. Because the reality is that as we move to these new fuels, the infrastructure to provide those fuels, the filling stations, if you will, will not develop uniformly around the world.

So we felt we needed the capability to run on conventional fuels when we were not able to get the green methanol that we want to be running on. So we’ll have more capability and more resilience for disruptions in the fuel supply chain that way. And that way, we can provide more reliable, more resilient supply chains for our customers.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, I wish you smooth sailing on the way to your goals. Lee Kindberg, she’s the head of Environment and Sustainability for North America for the global shipping giant Maersk. Thank you for being with me today.

LEE KINDBERG: Thank you. This has been a pleasure.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

About Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

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