Pushing the Boundaries of Sustainable Shipping
Pushing the Boundaries of Sustainable Shipping
How the Rotterdam-Singapore Green and Digital Shipping Corridor Project is Helping to Reduce Shipping Emissions in Practice
by Refke Gunnewijk
Sustainable long-haul transport is one of the biggest challenges on the way to a carbon-neutral society. While shipping is the most efficient form of transport, its sheer size means the industry still accounts for around 3% of global emissions.
To contribute to the decarbonisation of international shipping, Rotterdam and Singapore kicked off an ambitious “Green and Digital Corridor” project to realize the first sustainable vessels sailing between the two ports by 2027, with the ultimate goal to realize net zero shipping along this route by 2050. The project has the potential for global impact, covering an important trade route of more than 10,000 kilometers and connecting two of the largest bunkering ports in the world.
While international shipping currently relies primarily on marine gas oil (MGO) and low-sulphur fuel oil, sustainable alternatives such as biofuels, and green methanol are increasingly being made available. Other alternatives such as ammonia and hydrogen are in various stages of R&D for future trials and deployment.
Already today, Rotterdam is the world’s biggest bunkering port for bio-fuels and leading in the development of methanol bunkering, with the first barge-to-ship methanol bunkering in May 2021. As the world’s largest bunkering port with around 20% global share in 2022, Singapore has also been actively investigating alternative fuels, with increasing volumes of biofuel bunkering and the first ship-to-containership methanol bunkering operation in July 2023.
However, the widescale roll-out of new fuels in international shipping is still in the early stages, as each alternative fuel has its own challenges relating to costs, availability, and safety. There is energy density to consider, as ocean going vessels travel thousands of kilometres often for days or weeks on end. That means a new sustainable fuel must be able to deliver a huge amount of energy for the journey. These uncertainties have traditionally made the shipping industry more hesitant to commit to new engines and technologies.
To tackle these challenges, the two port authorities agreed to bring together a broad coalition of shipping lines, fuel suppliers and other companies to collectively work on practical solutions and agree on concrete steps to gain real-life experience and finally come to commercial scale.
A study by the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping focused on large containers ships which account for the bulk of transport between Singapore and Rotterdam showed that no single fuel would provide the “silver bullet” in the short term. Rather, multiple alternative fuels will need to be deployed to achieve the scale required for a 20% emission reduction and beyond.
The two port authorities have established working groups to work with fuel suppliers and shipping lines to look into the deployment of all of various alternative zero or low-carbon fuels. Each fuel comes with its own challenges. For example, methanol can already be bunkered in Rotterdam and Singapore and is gaining traction with the shipping industry, but the production of green methanol has not yet reached sufficient industrial scale. Some argue that ammonia can be more easily produced at scale, but the use of ammonia as a shipping fuel is still in the early stages of development.
Supporting Green Regulation
The study also showed that the use of such fuels is likely to result in a cost increase for shipping on the trade lane, which is an important element in its deployment. Therefore, a separate working group has been formed with the support of the Global Maritime Forum, the Centre for Maritime Studies of the National University of Singapore and Citibank to address gaps in regulation and financing.
In addition, Singapore and Rotterdam have already adopted a new system of Port Readiness Levels to show shipping lines exactly which alternative fuels can safely be used and bunkered in a port.
Digital Trade Lanes
Digitalisation can already improve the efficiency and sustainability of shipping today. Therefore, in addition to the fuel shift, the two ports have also committed to better digital collaborations on the corridor.
The Corridor focuses on two areas in the digital realm. Firstly, port call optimisation is about making port calls as efficient as possible. For example, container ships can reduce their carbon emissions within the port area by up to 14% if they utilise just-in-time (JIT) sailing. Secondly, digital trade is about reducing and eventually eliminating paper documents throughout the supply chain in order to become truly data driven. This not only enables smooth operations and movement of goods, it also provides insights into the current carbon footprint and ways to significantly reduce it.
Rotterdam and Singapore are now the first ports adopting and sharing timestamps in accordance with standards from the IMO to enable port call optimalisation. Both ports also embrace the fully digital bill of lading. This will enable further optimisation of port calls across the route, increasing efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Helping the Shipping Sector Move Forward
While there has been much talk in the industry about the need for greener shipping, the real challenge will be quickly scaling from first demonstrators to commercial scale. With more than twenty partners working on roadmaps for different fuels and regulatory challenges, the Rotterdam-Singapore Green & Digital Corridor may change all that very soon.