Op-Ed: Markets will reward decarbonization first movers … time for legislators to do the same

Written by Heather Ervin
Shipping decarbonization

Credit: Shutterstock

By Stéphanie Lesage, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Airseas

There is a growing consensus that immediate action is needed to decarbonize shipping, but much of the debate remains focused on alternative fuels that won’t be fully ready for another decade. Failing to prioritize “clean tech” that is capable of reducing shipping’s emissions today would be a mistake—both for shipowners who would miss on a business opportunity, and for regulators who want to see meaningful change for the planet.   

Will it be ammonia, hydrogen, or green methanol? The debate on which future fuel will come to dominate markets and power fleets on the world’s ocean has sparked heated debates across the maritime sector, from maritime conferences to companies’ boardrooms. While there is no doubt that new carbon-free fuels will be needed to achieve net zero shipping, the reality is that it will likely take at least 10 years to develop the fuels, engines, and supply infrastructure on the scale necessary to supply the global commercial fleet. The planet simply cannot wait for that long, and nor should the industry.

Stéphanie Lesage

The good news is that solutions do exist today. The future fuels debate risks overshadowing other options that should be at the heart of shipping’s decarbonization journey, which include various clean technologies that are already available to reduce emissions from ships, such as wind propulsion, air lubrication and advanced hull coatings.

They represent one of the best ways to start decarbonizing shipping today, and as such, anyone making decarbonization plans, from shipowners making investment decisions, to political leaders making regulatory choices, should treat them as a priority. These decision makers have a steep mountain to climb—and should be looking for anything that makes the journey smoother now.

The business case for clean tech

Given the level of investment involved, the temptation is high for shipowners to sit back and wait until we have a clearer indication of which fuel will come to dominate the markets. But inaction at this stage would be a mistake—for the right thing to do for the planet is also a decision that makes business sense, now and in the long term.

The first and most immediate benefit of clean tech is obvious: by improving energy efficiency through renewable energy sources such as the wind, ships need to burn less fuel to achieve the same result, which cuts costs and improves their carbon emissions performance.

For example, our Seawing system, an automated parafoil that harnesses wind power to lower the engine effort for commercial ships, reduces emissions by an average of 20%, and up to 40% on certain routes. Through reduced fuel costs, we estimate that the investment will pay for itself after 2 to 5 years depending on the routes and the types of ships. Furthermore, as the industry is faced with volatile fuel prices, burning as little fuel as possible is already a major advantage.

In the longer term, clean technologies will enable ships to remain compliant with energy efficiency regulation as it is progressively tightened. For shipowners, this may make the difference between keeping their vessels trading, or seeing their assets being stranded. Ultimately, investing in clean technologies will buy shipowners some vital time to analyze emerging fuels and market trends, and make better informed decisions when the time comes for critical investment on new vessels and alternative fuels.


Just like steering a giant containership into a sharp turn is a delicate operation, transforming the global fleet of over 50,000 commercial ships to achieve net zero is complex and will take decades to achieve. And just like changing the course of a vessel is easier if the necessary manoeuvres have started in time, being a first mover on decarbonization will pay off, and today’s pioneers will be one move ahead in the new playing field for shipping.

Now is the time for regulators to support this trend, by providing the right incentives that will encourage immediate actions in the industry. The time has come to change the paradigm and include renewable energies in the regulatory landscape. Renewable energy sources should be considered on equal footing as alternative fuels in any regulatory frameworks, including any carbon intensity index to come, and any source of energy should be assessed on its full life cycle—so that shipowners and their vessels are assessed on the amount of carbon they actually emit, not just on the fuel that power their engines.

In other words, we need to move from a fuel-centred approach to an energy-centred approach, that is based on results and isn’t biased towards fuels.

So far, this period of major transformation for shipping has been led more by the industry than by regulators, but it’s not too late for them to act, and recognize the value of all possible tools that will get us closer to the GHG reductions the planet needs.

Categories: Engines & Fuel, Environment, Legislation, Op-Eds, Shipping Tags: , , , , , ,