EU shipping emissions jump as LNG tankers pack European ports
Shipping emissions jumped 3 percent in 2022, mostly driven by a doubling of emissions from LNG tankers in European waters.
Shipping emissions in the European Union grew last year, pushed higher by a surge in LNG imports.
Missions from the maritime sector increased by 3 percent in 2022, rising to a three-year high, according to an analysis from Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based sustainability NGO.
Overall, carbon pollution from the EU shipping sector rose to 128.2 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) in 2022, up from 126.3 MtCO2 a year earlier. The largest source of emissions come from containerships, followed by bulk carriers, oil tankers, ferries, and then LNG carriers.
While LNG tankers are not the largest source of maritime emissions, they accounted for most of the recent increase, as an armada of LNG tankers rushed to Europe to replace lost Russian gas. Emissions from LNG tankers shot up by more than 50 percent last year to 10.1 MtCO2, and have doubled since 2018.
“We believe that this is linked to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the resulting increase of LNG imports from countries such as the United States,” Constance Dijkstra, a shipping campaigner for Transport & Environment, told Gas Outlook.
Rising pollution from LNG tankers is one small piece of the broader array of climate concerns related to LNG.
“Rising volume LNG shipments to Europe and around the world are a double whammy from the climate standpoint,” Shruti Shukla, a senior advocate for international energy at NRDC, a Washington-based environmental think tank, told Gas Outlook. LNG tankers burn fuel as they crisscross oceans, before delivering gas that is burned at their final destination, adding more planet-warming pollution into the atmosphere.
On top of that, LNG tankers leak methane in transit and also during regasification. An NRDC analysis finds that 2 to 11 percent of LNG’s lifecycle emissions occur during transport, and 1 to 3 percent comes during regasification.
Shukla said that once the emissions impact of liquefaction, transportation, and regasification is factored in, the total lifecycle emissions of U.S.-based fracked gas — much of which is now going to Europe — is 21 percent higher than gas that is simply burned in a power plant in the U.S.
“So, for Europe, use of imported LNG is not an effective long-term strategy to reduce total emissions from their electricity sectors and meet their current climate goals,” she said.
LNG as a marine fuel
While most attention on LNG relates largely to its use as a source of energy for electricity, industry, and heat in buildings — all onshore uses — the shipping industry is also increasingly turning to LNG as a source of fuel to power ships. The shipping sector accounts for about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and there is a push from governments to cut down on the sector’s climate impact.
LNG tankers often use their own gas as a fuel, but the much larger shipping sector has historically used a viscous and sludgy fuel called heavy fuel oil. International regulations implemented in 2020 targeting the sulphur content of shipping fuels have forced the industry to switch to very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) and marine gasoil.
The shipping sector has also promoted LNG as a solution for fuel use. Because LNG contains fewer pollutants such as sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), it offers significant regional air quality benefits over dirtier maritime fuels.
But from a climate standpoint, the gains are dubious. Whether LNG is exported overseas to be burned in a power plant, or whether it is used as a shipping fuel, the same problems with methane leaks apply. Seeping out of every stage of the supply chain, research is increasingly finding that methane leaks make natural gas as damaging to the climate as coal.
As Bloomberg News reports, cruise ships touting the benefits of LNG as a shipping fuel are spewing methane, raising questions about the supposed benefits from switching to gas.
In addition, the existing shipping fleet is not technically equipped to use LNG as a fuel. Ships can be converted to handle LNG, but retrofits are costly. Instead, in order to use LNG, entirely new “dual-fuel” LNG ships — able to handle both conventional maritime fuels in addition to LNG — would be necessary. Onshore bunkering facilities also need to be constructed. In essence, switching over the shipping sector from existing maritime fuels to LNG would require a major industrial overhaul and buildout, at great cost.
The climate risk is also substantial, with similar issues compared to the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere onshore — that is, new polluting infrastructure will be “locked in” for decades to come. LNG tankers have operational lives of 25 to 30 years.
Despite these risks, the sector appears to be proceeding down this path. There are an estimated 873 LNG-powered ships on order, Dijkstra said, citing data from maritime consultancy Clarksons.
“LNG is obviously a fuel that is gaining momentum among major players in the maritime sector and given the benefit of the doubt by global and EU regulators. That’s rather unfortunate,” Dijkstra said.
“From a well-to-wake basis and depending on the engine type, the climate impact of using LNG is either worse than traditional marine fuels or in the best-case scenario offers marginal GHG savings,” Dijkstra said. ‘Well-to-wake’ refers to a standardized lifecycle emissions measurement for maritime fuels, taking into account emissions from production to the point of use in a vessel.
Better options include electrifying onshore shipping infrastructure, slowing ship speeds, using wind-assisted propulsion on ships, and ultimately investing in e-fuels made from green hydrogen.
“If the maritime sector is serious about its climate commitment, it should make a move towards e-fuels produced via renewable electricity such as green hydrogen and adopt other energy saving measures ranging from shore-side electricity to wind energy and slow-steaming,” Dijkstra said.
Reporting by Nicholas Cunningham; editing by Sophie Davies.