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When It Comes to Climate in the EU, Ships Are Neither Airplanes Nor Road Vehicles

04.06.23 | Blog | By:

Consistency in regulatory approach would certainly help citizens regain some trust in the value of politics, in the present context of “democratic fatigue”. If said regulation addresses climate change, or adaptation, this consistency is even more important as it may also help educate the public about the efforts we will have to bear in the forthcoming decades, efforts likely to challenge our living standards and that may be very difficult to sell to voters.

Even in the EU, self-proclaimed world champion of the fight against climate change, we just witnessed another inconsistency in regulating transport towards sustainability.

Maritime and air transport sectors share many similarities, a significant one being their global nature, making climate regulations much more difficult to impose, compared to more local activities, like road transport or housing. Still, the global associations, United Nations agencies, like ICAO and IMO, or commercial ones, like IATA, have agreed to ambitious strategies to play their due part in the Net Zero Emissions objective of 2050, a central element to the 2015 Paris Agreement to protect our planet from a catastrophic warming. Global agreements have then to be translated into regional strategies, usually in the form of long-term, stable, regulations. And the EU has been proactive in both sectors, designing at the same time the ReFuel EU Aviation and Fuel EU Maritime pieces of regulation.

One would have expected very similar regulatory proposals. No such luck!

The regulation regarding air transport, as exposed in a recent post, is highly prescriptive, with mandates and sub-mandates, a limited list of eligible feedstocks, only waste and residues, a straightjacket in other terms. With “tankering” the likely consequence.

The regulation regarding maritime transport is open, technology-neutral, and proposes a trajectory to reduce the carbon footprint of the fuels propelling the ships, which is what you would expect from a climate regulation that should, first and foremost, force greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. It leaves the industry its responsibilities, in terms of innovation, diversification of solutions (based on local considerations, critical in renewable energy), supply management and economic efficiency, to pick and choose between the most beneficial low-carbon fuel and powertrain candidates.

And there are multiple possibilities, more than offered to aviation: biomass-based fuels or e-fuels (which still have a small incorporation sub-mandate of 2 % from 2035 onwards, and double-counting eligibility until then, to stimulate their deployment), biogas-spiked natural gas (bio-LNG), electricity, wind (good old sails, technologically enhanced). Putting the obligation on ship operators, owners and charterers, also gives the possibility to consult with freight owners, who may have a view on the type of renewable fuel they want (or do NOT want) their precious cargo forwarded with: another possibility of diversification on the fuel solution side, another possibility to involve the final clients by explaining the sustainability of the supply chain.

Of course, the initial mandate in 2025, is small, at 2% CO2 emission reduction, but the maritime sector is also subject to the EU cap-and-trade system, ETS. Only eco-radicals, some in the European Parliament, do not understand any heavy industry needs time to modify its supply chain, especially when novel fuels, like green methanol or heavy biofuel, or novel engines, like those using LNG, are considered. But the hockey stick trajectory, steadily increasing pressure (6% emission reduction in 2030, 14.5% in 2035, 31% in 2040, 62% in 2045) should make the maritime sector quite up to par with EU and global climate ambitions, with a target of 80% emission reduction in 2050, along with significant reductions in methane and N2O. All ships beyond 5,000 tons are concerned, covering 90 % of the fleet in terms of emissions, and a recast is scheduled anyway in 2028 for those not concerned today.

Looks like this regulation is a template for properly addressing the climate challenge, reducing GHG emissions, and, by allowing a diversity of solutions, not throwing the industry in another resource monopoly that too often leads to a dead-end.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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