COLUMN | The end of fossil fuel-powered ships? [Grey Power]

(Representative photo only)

We talk collectively about “the shipping industry”, but the rest of the world will fail to comprehend that it is a collection of very different sectors, united only by the fact that their plant floats.

There was something of a reminder of this with COP28 underway in Dubai, provoking various virtuous statements from what we used to call the “liner lords” anxious to show their green credentials to the assembled climatologists gathered in this spectacular petro-ministate. These are fierce eco-zealots who have already objected to their 70,000-head gathering being penetrated by oil and gas interests, so the words of shipping company executives need to be green and soothing. The delegates are probably nervous enough when they think of all that oil and gas swishing around under their feet.

So the words of the chief executives of some of the world’s biggest shipping companies in the shape of container giants Maersk, MSC, CMA CGM, and Hapag-Lloyd were designed to drop like dew on the hot brows of the environmental warriors. They said, quite bluntly, that they were anxious to see the end of ships that could only run on fossil fuel, inferring that the sooner that this environmental Nirvana was achieved, the better they would like it. One would hope that this would have gone down a storm, although it is worth remembering that a good proportion of the more extreme delegates would be ecstatic only if global trade were to cease and all ships run off the seas, which could be left to the happy whales and their scaly friends.

“Dry bulk is a very sizeable portion of the global shipping whole.”

It is of course worth noting that these gigantic liner companies have the undoubted heft to shift the operation of their huge fleets to more sustainable fuels. It has been reported that they have teams already scouring the world sourcing large quantities of greener fuels. They fully recognise the struggle there will be to compete with all the non-marine buyers of the stuff, even though there is still far from a consensus on what form that green fuel will take.

You can argue that these shipping companies operating in the liner sector also have the muscle to influence the ports and terminals to which they trade, those who will design their ships and build them, the engine manufacturers, and, to some extent, the suppliers of bunkers. It is thus not surprising that these giants now make the first moves into a new world of greener shipping.

But a few days before the COP28 delegates were clambering into their groaning jet aircraft, there was an interesting meeting of the bulk cargo ship owners’ organisation Intercargo, at which rather more practical realism was apparent. Dry bulk is a very sizeable portion of the global shipping whole; a different world entirely from the pre-selected voyages of the liner trades and it is important that these differences are properly recognised.

“The globe-girdling, medium-sized tramp with cargo gear on deck will be unable to accommodate such changes and will be hard to adapt to new fuels.”

The dry bulk tramp ship is arguably as important as the liner, but completely different in its voyage pattern – itinerant, short-term, hard to forecast voyages to vast numbers of ports and anchorages across the world, many of which will be far removed from the industrial mainstream. There will be few “green corridors” of the type that shipping ministers like to enthuse over. The sort of new fuel infrastructure that is available for the liner trades on the principal routes is unlikely to be available anytime soon. And while in the future clever designers will doubtless be able to produce new and greener tramp ship designs that will satisfy the thirst for sustainability, it is the existing fleet of ships that will have years of life in them of which the practical people in Intercargo are chiefly concerned.

There may have been some well-publicised voyages of new designs with huge fuel tanks for green fuel mounted on the afterdeck, but these are exception – big bulkers on long-term business. The globe-girdling, medium-sized tramp with cargo gear on deck will be unable to accommodate such changes and will be hard to adapt to new fuels. So it is important that in all the zeal to change the way that shipping deals with its environment, notably in timescales and practical changes brought about by regulations, these very important differences between the ships of the liner lords and the humbler tramps are remembered.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.