Shipping's collision course with net zero

·2-min read

The most definitive thing the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Mick Kinley can say about the shipping industry's quest for decarbonisation is that nothing is clear.

Speaking at the Ports Australia conference in Brisbane on Wednesday, Mr Kinley told the audience there is no obvious green energy source to replace fossil fuels as the industry works toward decarbonisation.

"Our simple world ... where ships pretty much universally have burned the black stuff that came out of the back of refineries, is coming to an end," he said.

"All of the alternative fuels that you'll hear about with decarbonisation ... come with their own different risks."

In 2018, The International Maritime Organisation adopted a strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by at least half by 2050, compared to 2008 levels.

And while the top 10 per cent of the industry are leading the way and investing money to address the net zero challenge, Mr Kinley believes the bulk may need "someone to push them along with a pointy stick" to do what's needed.

Ammonia is one possibility, but it is very toxic and very explosive, he says.

"How are you going to feel about ships bunkering ammonia, or ships being fuelled by ammonia, coming in and tying up next to an apartment block?" he said.

Another option is hydrogen, and while it's not toxic, it is highly flammable.

"There's still trials being worked out on how you're actually going to carry hydrogen in bulk. It's another level of difficulty from LNG and the low temperatures you have to carry it."

Liquid natural gas, which is being used as a transition fuel by some ships now, comes with similar hazards to hydrogen.

These points raise significant questions for how ports will keep a global fleet moving if the ships are running on different and potentially volatile fuel sources.

"How many ports are going to be able to be those energy hubs in the future?" Mr Kinley said.

"How many ports are going to be able to invest in the sorts of infrastructure that's needed."

A decarbonised shipping industry will mean more complex ships, and a more complex system of land-based infrastructure needed to support them.

"You're not just going to be able to rock up to any old port and expect you're going to be able to get diesel or ammonia or hydrogen or whatever," he said.

"It is going to bring a very different world for us."