Biofuels can help shipping make big GHG cuts despite doubts: study

29 Mar 2018 | John McGarrity

Biofuels will have a major role to play in helping to limit the carbon footprint of ships, a major study released this week has found, but any detailed discussion of alternative fuels won’t be on the agenda when the UN’s shipping agency meets for an important environmental meeting next week.

A study by the OECD’s International Transport Forum (ITF) said that advanced biofuels could totally replace the use of fossil fuels in particular ships and play a major role in a proposed 70-100% cut by 2050, versus 2008 levels.

“Alternative fuels and renewable energy can deliver much of the required reductions. Advanced biofuels are already available in limited quantities. Gradually, they should be complemented by other natural or synthetic fuels such as methanol, ammonia and hydrogen,” the report said.

However, the UN’s shipping agency, the International Maritime Organisation, won’t be discussing the feasibility of particular measures until future meetings.

Their next meeting will first have to hammer out general agreement between major shipping nations on the scale and timing of cuts, and how shrinking the sector’s carbon footprint might be paid for.     

Although some observers are sceptical that marine biofuels will be plentiful enough to play a major role in decarbonising shipping, the ITF points out that these additives have a major advantage in that they are compatible with existing marine engines, pipelines and bunker infrastructure, thus limiting the costs of adaptation.

Other alternative fuels, such as hydrogen and liquefied natural gas, are likely to be much more expensive, and would involve heavy government subsidy, very high carbon prices and huge capital investment by the shipping industry.  

Moreover, biofuels are more suitable than other non-fossil alternatives (such as battery-powered ships) for use in large bulk carriers that ship commodities around the world's oceans.

Financial incentives and carbon pricing will also be required to encourage the production of advanced biofuels from waste materials and crop/forest residues, the ITF report acknowledges, given that first generation biofuels based on crops do little to reduce carbon footprint once life-cycle emissions are taken into account.

According to IEA figures referenced by the ITF, the current biofuels supply of both biodiesel and bioethanol can only cover about 15% of total fuel demand and at the same time avoid the food-versus-fuel conundrum.


Fears that biofuels use will drive deforestation, prompt spikes in food prices and lead to human rights abuses in developing countries have cast a pall of controversy over the UN aviation agency ICAO’s CORSIA carbon reduction scheme.

Negotiators at the IMO will have to grapple with the same problems faced by aviation and road transport to source biofuels that can demonstrate big carbon savings compared with regular fossil fuels.

Moreover, forecasted demand for aviation biofuels, which ICAO reckons could be between 130 million metric tonnes and 285 million mt by 2050, would likely leave little availability for the marine sector, some studies point out.

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