Ships in European waters and inland rivers are required to be emission-free by 2050. They need a radical makeover in order to accomplish this goal. Fuel oil and diesel? If all goes well, we will no longer hear or smell them when that time comes around. But just how shipbuilders and owners want to do that is a question that remained largely unanswered during a session at the European Innovation Days. This was where experts from the European shipping industry were supposed to advise European Commission officials.

Sensors make ships more autonomous

The idea was that recommendations would come out of it for the Horizon Europe investment program. Climate targets play an important role in this. However, as an example, R&D director Paolo Guglia of the Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri (mega yachts, cruise ships and military vessels) elaborated mainly on the increase in the number of sensors on ships which aim to make them more autonomous. The helmsman has more data at his disposal than is currently available because of this. Which enables him to make better decisions. Consequently, he is less dependent on data sent from ashore – a factor that should contribute to safety. Not unimportant for a sector wherein accidents sometimes lead to negative publicity.

Good news therefore for the shipping industry. But for now that has little to do with greener ships, or so it seems. It is expected that the use of artificial intelligence and digitization of shipping will result in ships that are environmentally friendly, said Sinikka Hartonen, chairperson of the Shipowners’ Association in Finland. That means that a ship will be able to sail in a way which causes as little environmental damage as possible.

Which green technology will win out?

According to R&D manager Henk Prins of the MARIN research institute in Wageningen, it should be possible to operate emission-free inland waterway and coastal shipping as early as 2030. It was not entirely clear how. The problem is that it is not yet possible to predict which green technology will dominate the ships of the future. Hydrogen? Collecting the CO2 on board and transferring it to port? Any other ideas? I haven’t a clue. That is a problem for the shipping industry, as ships have a life span of around 30 years. Thus the question is if an investor intends to make a purchase at some point, what should they buy in order to remain competitive in the long term.

One way to avoid having to write off polluting ships prematurely is to ‘retro-fit’ them, as this is now called. New, green ships are on their way, of course. Yet existing ships can be refurbished with new, green technology. This will enable them to sail emission-free in due course.

Trouble ahead

A caveat to the innovation drive shown by the various shipping experts towards the Brussels officials came from Faig Abbasov, responsible for the shipping portfolio of the Transport & Environment NGO. He said that there is a problem around long-distance shipping if the EU makes rules that do not apply on an international level. Because there are countries that are able to just sail across the oceans on dirty fuels, which is presumably a lot cheaper. They will then be able to outdo their clean rivals in waters outside of Europe. The solution must come from the IMO, the UN body that makes the rules for international shipping. But there, too, Abassov sees trouble ahead. After all, what if a country in the UN does not adhere to the Paris Agreement targets for instance? Then the UN body will likely be a lame duck and shall consequently not succeed in implementing the stricter environmental rules for shipping throughout the world.

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