The marine transport industry has hit stormy waters. Following decades of growth as globalisation boosted the needs of manufacturing to ship goods worldwide, the need for a more sustainable and low-emission way to sail the seas is causing waves.

Despite accounting for around 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions international shipping was left out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. But with mounting evidence of the impact of fossil fuels on climate change, the shipping industry is beginning to act.

The biggest shift happened in April 2018, when the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) announced that from January 1st 2020 they would, “… implement a global sulphur limit of 0.50% m/m (mass/mass).” Adding that this figure, “… represents a significant cut from the 3.5% m/m global limit currently in place and demonstrates a clear commitment by IMO to ensuring shipping meets its environmental obligations.”

Additionally, the industry body outlined its Greenhouse Gas emissions ‘Initial Strategy’ which, “… envisages for the first time a reduction in total GHG emissions from international shipping which, it says, should peak as soon as possible and to reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008.”

The impact of this decision sent shock waves through the industry, as ship owners and operators began to wonder how their vessels could meet the new required standard. To lower sulphur output, most were left with two options, employ ‘scrubbers’ to remove the majority of the sulphur emissions from the ships’ exhaust fumes, or to modify the engines to allow biofuel mixtures to be used.

While each shipping company is currently making those decisions, the consequences are already being felt. One such result is from the Good Shipping Program, which announced in September 2018 that it had begun delivering a more sustainable ship fuel.

The NGO announcing that for the first-time in the organisation’s history, “A container vessel that carries over 800 containers and normally runs on a combination of fossil fuels like Heavy Fuel Oil and Marine Gas Oil, was bunkered with 22,000 litres of Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil made from used cooking oil. The biofuels were supplied by GoodFuels Marine and replaced the equivalent volume of Heavy Fuel Oil.”

The Samskip Endeavour sailing on a biofuel blend.

However, not everyone is convinced that a new era for the shipping industry has begun, not least because of the numerous hurdles that need to be crossed before using biofuel in marine transport becomes the norm.

As the industry journal Oil Price, suggests that, “While biofuels have advantages in terms of reduced emissions, so they would be more ‘environmentally-friendly’ than other options, the characteristics, energy content, and costs of biofuels for blending in the shipping industry are disadvantages that ship owners and operators can’t ignore.”

In an article entitled, ‘Are Biofuels a Viable Alternative for the Shipping Sector?’, the journal describes how, “The biofuel blending for shipping would be much more complicated than road fuel blending mandates, because of the nature of the shipping industry where ships flying any flags move between ports in various countries. The issue of which country gets the mandate for biofuel blending and emissions is complex when it comes to shipping.

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Adding that, “Apart from this issue, there are others that could prevent biofuel from becoming a mainstream solution for the shipping industry to reduce emissions. These are the lower energy content of biofuels compared to marine gas oil, the poor performance of biofuel in cold temperatures, less stability when blended, and short shelf life.”

The challenges of introducing biofuels to the shipping industry were also outlined by S&P Global Platts in a September 2018 report. Their team interviewed many marine-fuel buying experts and found that key questions remain about biofuel prices.

One typical response from a global bunker buyer was, “If [the biofuels] are cheaper than other cutterstocks, suppliers will use them.”

S&P Global Platts’ price comparison of biodiesel vs marine gasoil.

The team observing that, “In the end despite its environmental advantages, the deciding factor on biofuel use in the marine sector will likely come down to cost, with many biofuel producers and traders saying they remain pessimistic as to their chances of breaking into the new market any time soon.”

But perhaps the marine transport industry needs to look beyond the costs involved. On paper, oil is cheaper and, as a known quantity, offers more certainty. However, the continued burning of fossil fuels has an indirect cost, with the industry needing to ‘do its bit’ towards lessening climate change impact.

As Barry Fitzgerald, postdoctoral researcher at the Delft University of Technology, notes, “The shipping industry is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the transport sector.”

Click to read How the Biofuel Industry is Making Waves Part 2.

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