SSI is holding a series of seminars and webinars to investigate the sustainability and availability of biofuels for shipping. We recognise that a number of questions surround the current, and potential future, sustainability and availability of biofuels – and we want to build a better understanding of the issues at play before deciding whether and how to proceed.

On 11 July SSI held a seminar on the availability of sustainable biofuels for shipping, hosted by Maersk at the International Maritime Organization. Facilitated by Forum for the Future, the seminar provided an opportunity for a diverse range of views to be expressed on the key questions raised, providing rich insights and debate.

This seminar aimed to provide clarity to the shipping industry as to why there is such a wide range of estimates of the future availability of sustainable biofuel and the implications of these various estimates for the decarbonisation of the shipping sector. Finally it will give stakeholders the opportunity to offer insight and discuss whether sufficient sustainable biofuel will become available to meet the needs of the shipping sector.

Among the rich insights and diverse range of views expressed on the key questions raised, the seminar raised the following points:

  • There is significant variation in projected future availability of feedstock – although there was agreement that the highest estimates (beyond 100 EJ) can largely be discounted as practically unfeasible.
  • Conversely, it was considered likely/reasonable that availability of the order of magnitude of 50EJ could become available (if there is a major societal push to make it so).  This would not just be available for shipping however – but to all potential competing industries/uses.
  • And while shipping, as a ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ sector, might make a case for preferential access – arguments can also be made that end-uses that result in this feedstock being ‘stored’ (ie, in materials) rather than combusted (as fuel) should be prioritised, on the assumption that this has a greater effect on lowering the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. 
  • If others sectors are demanding biomass at scale then shipping is unlikely to be able to meet all its future energy sources from biogenic feedstocks. Therefore, there is potentially a different approach needed in the shorter term to develop and use the surplus biomass whilst developing non-biogenic decarbonisation technologies ready to enter fleets at the right point. 
  • In terms of that timing, participants suggested that all new ships coming ‘online’ from around 2030 will have to be zero-carbon to fully decarbonise by 2050 at the latest and thus are likely to rely on new, post-biofuel technology.
  • It’s not yet clear that (cost-effective) zero-carbon propulsion technology will be available by 2030 however – and it will only become available if significant efforts are made now to ensure it (requiring everything from strong policy; advocacy in support of such policy; creating strong market signals; etc)
  • The result of this transition management approach would see new vessels be zero carbon without biofuels whilst there is an ongoing but declining role for biofuels to power the existing shipping fleet until its end-of-life.
  • Indeed, the major availability question facing shipping might be whether there will be enough to make a significant dent in shipping over the next decade, rather than whether there will be an eventual cap? (ie will there be sufficient biofuel to enable shipping to improve in the coming decade, rather than will there be too little for shipping to make a wholesale switch in the decades to come)?

Presentations delivered at the seminar

Sustainable biomass potentials and competing uses
Uwe R. Fritsche, Scientific Director, IINAS
Task 40 Deployment Lead & Task 45 Sustainability Co-Lead

Biomass in a low-carbon economy
Jenny Hill, Head of buildings, industry and bioenergy, UK Committee on Climate Change

Research Insights from DBFZ
Alexandra Pfeiffer, KatjaOehmichen, André Brosowski, Stefan Majer

Global Biomass Resource Availability & Trade Flows for Bioenergy
Dr. Andrew Welfle, University of Manchester

Alternative Fuels in Shipping
Environmental Defense Fund

IMO Photo credit: Mark Lutes, WWF