Throughout 2019 the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI) and international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future have been engaging closely with key stakeholders on an inquiry to explore the issues at play surrounding the sustainability and availability of biofuels for shipping in the context of the maritime industry’s transition to zero-emission shipping. Our learning will be shared in a report to be launched on 15 November at the sixth intersessional meeting of the Working Group on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships at the International Maritime Organization.

Here are some preliminary reflections from Forum for the Future, who has been leading SSI’s inquiry. The complete findings and recommendations will be published in the final report, available on the SSI website in November 2019.

Consulting a diverse range of stakeholders

On 26 June SSI held a seminar exploring the issues surrounding the sustainability of biofuels for shipping hosted by WWF. The second seminar took place on 11 July at the International Maritime Organization, hosted by Maersk. At this seminar we took a hard look at the data and investigated issues related to the availability of biofuels for shipping. A webinar held on 12 August gave us the opportunity to interact with those who couldn’t participate in the face-to-face seminars, allowing a testing of insights gained from the investigation thus far. SSI’s Climate Week event on 25 September is a culmination of the consultation process, with a high level panel offering their perspectives on the role of biofuels in shipping’s decarbonisation.

The need for answers

The pressure is on to decarbonise the shipping fleet, and leading countries and ship owners are responding with ambition. Yet there’s no consensus on which of the potential options – biofuels, ammonia, hydrogen or batteries has the winning combination of availability, sustainability and price. And with a ship’s lifespan of at least 20 years, investors, ship builders, ports and fuel suppliers need to know what infrastructure to start investing in within the next 18 months or so. 

Ultimately, no biofuel can be zero carbon as somewhere along their value chain more carbon will be released than is sequestered. Notwithstanding safety measures and associated regulations that may need to be considered, the technology that comes to dominate shipping in the longer term is likely to be ammonia or hydrogen as their combustion releases no carbon dioxide and they could be produced by renewable energy sources. But early cuts in carbon are critical to limiting climate change. Biofuels are somewhat unique as they can, and are fuelling some vessels already, making them an attractive solution to at least begin the maritime industry’s decarbonisation journey.

Sustainability concerns

There are strong stakeholder concerns about the impacts along the production chain for biofuels. The main challenges, amongst a formidable set, are the indirect carbon emissions that can result if the biofuels are sourced from crops grown on land, largely due to land use change to grow crop-based fuels. The recent IPCC Report on Climate Change and Land presents scenarios where energy crops have little impact on biodiversity or food security, and, conversely, ones where they are highly impactful. So it seems critical to ‘get it right’ and not repeat past damaging mistakes.

And it’s clear that what is ‘right’ depends on the region in question. For example, some believe that countries with high biofuel production like Brazil have the spare capacity to increase production from current farmed land, sustainably. So the same fuel could be unsustainable if produced in one region and sustainable in another. That ramps up the need for sophisticated certification schemes that incorporate indirect and systemic impacts. And whilst using residues and waste sources is lower risk than using crops, they are in shorter supply.

The availability picture

Shipping is certainly not alone in looking to biofuels as a decarbonisation route. The industry faces competition for the feedstocks from aviation and the increasing demand for bioplastics. Forecasts for the availability of biofuels from sustainable sources coalesce at around twice what is already being used, about five times what shipping could use but only just enough to meet the needs from aviation. So to make good progress we will need at least some coordination with other industries. 

Managing the risks requires careful consideration

With the recent spate of decarbonisation targets and a ratcheting up of ambition and practical action and investment, the risks of not sticking with fossil fuels are such that ‘doing nothing’ is not a credible option. Decisions by ship builders, owners, investors and users are needed soon. The role for biofuels must be set out.

Yet reticence is understandable as biofuel use comes with the significant potential for good intentions to result in perverse outcomes. There will always be risks whatever the source but a principles-based approach to assessment and certification – one that embraces transparency, honesty and humility – might enable constructive participation while this gap remains.