Sustainable shipping fuels could reach cost parity with fossil fuels as early as 2035 with the help of decisive emissions policy such as carbon taxes and emissions limits. This follows from a new report launched by technology group Wärtsilä on 21 March.

The report, titled “Sustainable fuels for shipping by 2050 – the 3 key elements of success”, reveals that the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and FuelEU Maritime Initiative (FEUM) will see the cost of using fossil fuels more than double by 2030. By 2035, they will close the price gap between fossil fuels and sustainable fuels for the very first time.

Transporting eighty per cent of world trade, shipping is the engine room of the global economy. However, despite being the most efficient and environmental way to transport goods, it emits two per cent of global emissions, equivalent to the annual emissions of Japan. Without action, this could increase by more than 45 per cent by 2050.

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Chicken and egg challenge

In 2023, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) set a target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Existing decarbonisation solutions, such as fuel efficiency measures, could cut up to 27 per cent of emissions. Wärtsilä’s report argues that sustainable fuels will be a critical step in eliminating the remaining 73 per cent, but radical action is needed to scale them.

The industry suffers from a “chicken and egg” challenge – shipowners won’t commit to a fuel today that is expensive, only produced in small quantities, and may be usurped by another fuel that scales faster and more affordably. Meanwhile, it is difficult for suppliers to scale production without clear demand signals.

Broad system change needed

Wärtsilä has produced new modelling that shows a timeline of which fuels are likely to become widely available on a global scale, when and at what cost. To accelerate this timeline, the report argues that decisive policy implementation, industry collaboration, and individual operator action must coalesce to scale the production of these fuels.

Roger Holm, president of Wärtsilä Marine & executive vice president at Wärtsilä Corporation says: ‘Achieving net zero in shipping by 2050 will require all the tools in the toolbox, including sustainable fuels. As an industry, we must focus on coordinating action across policymakers, industry and individual operators to bring about the broad system change required to quickly and affordably produce a mix of sustainable fuels. Policy in Europe is showing just how impactful action at the international level can be, closing the cost gap between fossil and low-carbon fuels for the first time.’

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Policy to close price gap

Wärtsilä’s modelling shows sustainable fuels will be three to five times more expensive than today’s fossil fuels in 2030. As ETS and FEUM show, policy is key to closing the price gap. The report argues that policymakers should:

  • Maximise certainty: Set an internationally agreed science-based pathway for phasing out fossil fuels from the marine sector, in line with IMO targets.
  • Boost cost competitiveness: Adopt a global industry standard for marine fuel carbon pricing.
  • Collaborate: Increase global collaboration between governments on the innovation and infrastructure necessary to deliver sustainable fuels at scale worldwide.

In addition, the sector must collaborate with stakeholders from inside and outside shipping. The report calls on industry to:

  • Pool buying power: Initiate sector-wide procurement agreements to pool demand from multiple shipping operators.
  • Collaborate with other sectors: Convene with leaders in aviation, heavy transport, and industry to establish a globally recognised framework for the production and allocation of sustainable fuels.
  • Share skills: Establish an industry-wide knowledge hub for the purpose of sharing expertise, skills and insights.

Individual actions

Every euro an operator saves in fuel costs at today’s prices, could be worth three to five times that by 2030. That means companies such as Carnival Corporation, which made a five to ten per cent efficiency gain through its Service Power Upgrade Program, could cut its fleetwide fuel costs by as much as USD 750 million per year in 2030. All operators can benefit from improving the efficiency of their vessels – the technology is readily available today.

Holm adds: ‘If there is one take away from our report, it is that smaller operators need not feel powerless. They have a major role in accelerating towards net-zero emissions shipping. Taking steps to improve fuel efficiency and invest in fuel flexibility can deliver immediate returns, reducing both emissions and operating costs. But action must be swift – we have the lifecycle of just a single vessel to get this right.’

Fuel flexibility

Investing in fuel flexibility is the most financially viable way to avoid the risk of stranded assets. Wärtsilä has been developing multiple fuel options. Most recently, Wärtsilä launched the first commercially available 4-stroke engine for ammonia fuel, which can immediately reduce emissions by over seventy per cent, compared to diesel.

The report provides a roadmap for the future of sustainable fuels, identifying how the industry can more rapidly and affordably scale these fuels and achieve full decarbonisation by mid-century – within the lifetime of just a single vessel. You can access and download the report here.

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