UN shipping agency's GHG target could be a boon for biofuels

13 Apr 2018 | John McGarrity

The potential use of marine biofuels got a boost on Friday after the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by “at least” 50% by mid-century from a 2008 baseline, a move that will require alternatives to standard marine fuels.

A greenhouse gas strategy agreed by the UN’s shipping agency said will need to start work immediately on drawing up short-term measures and detailed longer -term plans to implement the cuts for a sector that currently accounts for 3% of global CO2.

This week’s meeting has only agreed cuts in the broadest of outlines, while proposed rules and regulations for marine biofuels are likely to be controversial if current negotiations on aviation biofuels at the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation are any guide.

A report produced by the Organisation of Economic Co-Operation and Development in advance of the talks said that marine biofuels would have an important role to play in helping to decarbonise the sector.

But they will likely have to compete with other energy sources such as ammonia, hydrogen, electric-powered ships and even small wind turbines. 

Goodfuels, a Dutch company that says it is pioneering the use of biofuels as a drop-in for ships, points out that biofuels are by far the most cost-effective way of reducing the carbon content of ships.

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Marine biofuels can harness developments in advanced biofuels that source used cooking oil as well as forest and crop residues as feedstocks, it says, but the transport and aviation sectors will also be large, competing sources of demand.

Meanwhile, supply of advanced biofuels is puny so far, and for use in shipping will require a potentially complex regulatory framework and a system of incentives for some developing countries that are likely to balk at the extra costs that the IMO GHG strategy is likely to entail.  

Longer-term strategies, such as use of biofuels, are likely to be discussed at the IMO’s next major meeting in October 2018, but detailed rules for the use of biofuels may not emerge until 2019 or even later.

According to observers of the IMO process, the 50% target agreed this week will require ships to forego the use of fossil fuels from the 2030 onwards, ensuring that the industry will now also need to consider widespread adoption of alternative, energy sources that might not have a role for fuel blends over the longer term.