Large cargo container ship arriving in port
Carbon-carriers: while much of the CO₂ captured will be transported through pipelines, experts say ships will also be needed © Getty Images

The shipping industry delivers about 90 per cent of world trade and is powered almost entirely by fossil fuels, making it a notable contributor to pollution. But some think it could now play a vital role in efforts to stop carbon emissions entering the atmosphere.

As lawmakers and businesses face growing pressure to cut global emissions in the lead up to this year’s COP28 conference, some are betting that systems that capture and store carbon underground will contribute to these efforts. While much of the CO₂ captured will be transported through pipelines, experts say ships will also be needed to ensure the captured gas reaches offshore storage sites, such as those under the North Sea.

With consumption of fossil fuels expected to decline, demand for transporting CO₂ could open up a new line of business for companies that traditionally shipped oil and gas. 

“CO₂ storage is going to be very important [and] shipping is going to play a big role,” says Lein Mann Bergsmark, vice-president of supply chain research at analysis group Rystad Energy.

Although environmentalists say efforts should be focused on phasing out fossil fuels altogether, the volume of CO₂ captured annually is expected to grow from about 40mn tonnes to 600mn tonnes by 2030, according to Rystad.

The analyst predicts as much as 15 per cent of that could be carried by ships which, unlike fixed pipelines, can change route and facilitate transport to storage sites around the world.

But there is currently a severe shortage of ships able to meet the expected demand. And it is unlikely that more vessels will be built in the near future, shipping insiders say, given uncertainty over how the nascent carbon capture industry will develop.

The current size of the carbon-carrying fleet is tiny. Just four ships are in operation, Rystad says. These transport relatively small amounts of CO₂ for the food industry, which uses it in products including fizzy drinks. However, this fleet is unlikely to expand significantly anytime soon. Currently, only five new ships are on order, according to shipbroker Gibson. Three of these are being constructed to aid the Northern Lights project, a Norwegian government initiative that plans to store CO₂ below the North Sea.

Richard Matthews, director of consultancy and research at Gibson , says the shipbroker is “trying to stimulate investment from shipowners”, but these businesses face uncertainty over future demand, as well as the exact size and types of ships that will be required. 

There are currently about 40 commercial carbon capture and storage facilities which, together, are able to capture more than 45mn tonnes of CO₂ annually, according to the International Energy Agency. This is a small fraction of the 36.8bn tonnes in worldwide emissions last year. Specialist ships can also take years to build: if a CO₂ carrier was ordered today, it may not be completed until 2027, Matthews points out. 

In 2021, shipping equipment manufacturer Wartsila announced it had been granted “approval in principle” for a cargo tank design suitable for carrying liquid CO₂. But Roger Holm, president of Wartsila’s marine power division, says the company is yet to receive its first order, and the development of carbon capture is still in its “early phase”.

Even if carbon-carrying vessels suddenly multiplied, their environmental benefit would be countered by the shipping industry’s slow progress in decarbonising its own emissions.

Diplomats at the UN’s International Maritime Organisation this summer set a new target for shipping to achieve net zero emissions “by or around” 2050. But they are yet to agree a carbon levy or another economic measure that would incentivise the shipping industry to invest in more expensive green fuels. Regulation of the industry remains difficult due to its international nature.

Holm suggests carbon capture systems could be installed on ships, themselves — as part of efforts to slash emissions. He says Wartsila is hoping to test its own system next year on a ship owned by Norwegian group Solvang, with the goal of capturing 70 per cent of CO₂ emissions at the point of exhaust. But Holm adds that such technology requires the development of more ships and ports that can facilitate the transport of captured CO₂. 

Mann Bergsmark agrees the world faces a “chicken and egg” dilemma: while there are not enough carbon-carrying ships, there is also a shortage of active storage projects to incentivise the construction of more vessels.

“There are not enough [organisations] that are standing ready to transport [or] store the CO₂,” she adds. “This is going to be one of the most important challenges.”

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