How the shipping industry is charting a course toward climate disaster

How the shipping industry is charting a course toward climate disaster

Tuesday January 28, 2020

Shocking new report exposes LNG ships as worse for the climate than doing nothing at all

By Kendra Ulrich, Senior Shipping Campaigner, Stand.earth

The urgent need to drastically reduce climate-disrupting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is intensifying by the year. In 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning to the global community: GHGs must be nearly halved from 2017 levels by 2030 if we are to avert the worst impacts of climate change. There are only ten years left. 

But that doesn’t mean the fossil fuel industry is ready to go quietly  — as it must do, if we are to ensure the survival of humanity and our nonhuman cohabitants. 

Instead, the fossil fuel industry has attempted to metamorph and emerge rebranded. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the shipping sector. The Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) industry, together with shipowners whose primary concern is their bottom line, has been trying to sell LNG as the “alternative fuel” that will magically ease the way to a zero-emissions future. 

To be clear, LNG is primarily methane, and methane is a potent climate-disrupting gas. Over a 20-year period, methane traps 86 times more heat than the same amount of carbon.

Yet, major industry actors still insist that LNG is a part of the climate solution. For example, as recently as December 2019, the largest cruise operator in the world, Carnival Corporation, touted its LNG program as an example of its climate leadership in its announcement that it is joining the “Getting to Zero Coalition.” This coalition aims to have zero-emission vessels in operation by 2030 — yet LNG is a fossil fuel, and one that is a climate super-pollutant, i.e. LNG is nowhere close to a zero-emission technology.

The need to understand the comparative climate impacts of marine fuels, including LNG, is  both timely and urgent. 

To this end, Stand.earth commissioned a report from an independent research organization, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), to compare the lifecycle GHG emissions from the use of the four primary marine fuels in multiple types of ship engines. The researchers also took an in-depth look at a previously poorly studied source of GHG emissions from LNG ships: the unintentional releases of unburned methane from ship engines, referred to in the industry as “methane slip.” 

The results stunned even us.

The report authors came to the shocking conclusion that switching ships to LNG as an “alternative” fossil fuel would actually be worse for the climate than if the shipping sector did nothing at all! 

The report found that the most popular LNG ship engine, particularly for cruise ships, emits between 70% and 82% more life-cycle GHG emissions over the short-term compared to conventional marine distillate fuels. But the problem isn’t only the cruise sector. 

Of the 756 LNG-fueled ships globally, at least 300 ships have these particularly problematic engines installed. Only 90 of the LNG-fueled ships have the engine type associated with the lowest amount of methane slip. 

But even the best-performing LNG engine isn’t better for the climate, because methane leaks from the production of LNG are likely higher than previously estimated, the authors said.

With increasing orders for LNG ships, ports and countries have rushed to expand the infrastructure to support it. This is a climate disaster in the making.

Without swift and decisive action from the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) to ensure that all greenhouse gases are included in its emissions reduction strategy, including methane, the climate footprint of the shipping sector is likely to go from very bad to catastrophically worse.

To put this into context, the international shipping sector is responsible for more global GHG emissions than major climate polluting nations, including Germany, Iran, South Korea, and Canada. If left unchecked in a business-as-usual scenario, international shipping GHG emissions could rise from its current 3% share of emissions to a staggering 17% of global GHG emissions by 2050. If ships were to continue to uptake LNG as a marine fuel, emissions could be even worse. 

The concerns over methane emissions are so great that in that same 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authors specifically stated that methane emissions from all sources must be reduced by at least 35% from 2010 levels to avert a climate catastrophe. Clearly, switching ships to LNG isn’t the way to achieve this.

In 2018, the IMO finally approved an initial greenhouse gas reduction strategy for the global shipping sector. Unfortunately, the two years since have been plagued with inaction and delays on actually implementing that strategy. 

On March 30th, the week-long 75th meeting of the IMO Marine Environment and Protection Committee (MEPC 75) will convene in London. In a submission to MEPC 75, environmental non-governmental organizations have called upon IMO to regulate methane emissions from newly built ships. Currently, only carbon dioxide is regulated, a loophole that gives LNG an edge, even though using it is worse for the climate.

This report should serve as an alarming wake-up call to the IMO on its climate inaction. Its sluggish response, and lack of foresight, to the massive climate footprint of the shipping sector is not only making it less and less likely it will achieve even its weak GHG reduction targets, but is creating a regulatory open sea for even greater climate pollution. 

The shipping sector is sailing perilously off the climate-reduction course with LNG-fueled ships. 

When delegates gather at the IMO headquarters in March to (again) discuss its greenhouse gas reduction strategy and short-term measures to begin reducing the massive climate impacts of the sector, the world will be watching. 

The IMO must not fall short yet again on climate action. It must act now to steer global shipping away from LNG as a climate super-pollutant fuel, and it can only do that by ensuring that all GHGs — including methane — are part of its emissions reduction strategy. 

Learn more about Stand.earth's Clean Up Carnival campaign at https://www.stand.earth/markets-vs-climate/carnivals-cruise-pollution.