How will Vancouver decarbonize the shipping industry?

The trillion-dollar question was addressed by local cleantech companies, provincial energy suppliers, and global industry corporations at Greenship 2022.

Elisabeth Charmley, co-founder and executive director of VMCC. Photo: Derek Stevens

I’ve always found the global supply chain to be a marvel of modern society. Thanks to the daily transport of barges (like the one that washed up on the shores of English Bay last year), I can pump Saudi gasoline into my Korean car and get myself to a grocery store filled with Italian pasta, Mexican cheese, and Thai rice. And that’s just scratching the surface of all of the global goods we have access to, thanks to the maritime shipping industry.

So it’s no surprise that there are a profound slew of negative impacts when transporting items from all over the world by sea. Aside from acute impacts to the environment — such as disruption to marine life and occasional spillage of goods — the industry alone accounts for five percent of carbon emissions (with estimates to hit 17 percent by 2050). Last week, local leaders at the Vancouver Maritime Centre for Climate (VMCC) looked to address this elephant in the room.

VMCC hosted its inaugural Greenship 2022 event, Canada’s only conference focused on maritime shipping and transport decarbonization to discuss the challenges facing the sector. For this Ontario transplant who only saw container ships for the first time upon moving to Vancouver a number of years ago, I was in for a crash course. Here’s what I learned about the technology needed to transform the industry.

Aligning the environmental and economic incentives

Elisabeth Charmley worked for a decade as a naval architect before co-founding VMCC. An engineer by training, she focused on how to make ships run more energy-efficiently. “A large part of what I did was helping to optimize the ships, or optimize the fleet, which basically is reducing fuel consumption,” she tells the Vancouver Tech Journal. This, in turn, lowered costs, and also lessened carbon emissions for her employer — the world’s largest container ship owner, based here in Vancouver.

However, reducing fuel consumption isn’t easy — it requires technological upgrades and retrofitting that isn’t straightforward. “Ships are not like buildings. If I wanted to improve this building, I could just say, ‘Oh, I want to replace all the lights, let's schedule that for next month,’” she said. “A ship is operating on the water: it has cycles, it has a schedule [...] it's a little more complicated. To update ships, it does take some time.”

Elisabeth Charmley asks the audience how they foresee the future of climate change in their industry. Photo: Derek Stevens

I was surprised to learn that the local sector had a big role to play in addressing this challenge too: the Port of Vancouver is Canada’s largest port. “Sixty percent of Canada's ocean freight comes through the province of B.C., with 50 percent through the Port of Vancouver,” she said. “Industry here is really eager to not only tackle decarbonization — they're moving faster than a lot of the legislative decisions and targets.”

Here, Charmley realized that there was a need to centralize the discussions around decarbonization to truly transform the industry’s approach to the climate crisis — especially as it’s going to cost over a trillion dollars to get global shipping to net-zero carbon emissions.

She met Brian Buggey of Invest Vancouver and the two co-founded VMCC. “We're really focusing on enabling asset owners in the province of British Columbia to make informed decisions when it comes to decarbonizing their fleet.”

The problem(s) with zero-carbon fuels

It’s widely accepted in the industry that complete, global decarbonization by 2050 requires just five percent uptake of zero-carbon fuels by 2030. Seems simple — except that it’s estimated at a cost of over a trillion dollars, largely because there isn’t one clear zero-carbon fuel that can lead the way.

Electricity plays a significant role in a carbon-free marine shipping industry, but it is a complicated process. First of all, the electricity must come from renewable sources — such as hydro, wind, or solar. Electricity can then directly power ships via batteries, but this is only viable for short-term trips and smaller vessels such as tugboats. For larger vessel and longer trips, the zero-carbon way forward is to use alternative liquid or gas fuels that are produced with renewable electricity.

Now, once you have these alternative fuels, it becomes a question of storage and ensuring that they they remain zero-carbon throughout the life cycle. There are a number of key factors to keep in mind. The following includes an overview of hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and methanol fuels, as highlighted by Paul Blomerus, executive director of Clearseas, a local NGO that conducts independent research on safe and sustainable marine shipping in Canada.

Paul Blomerus, executive director of ClearSeas, speaks to the alternative fuel technology available for the industry. Photo: Derek Stevens

Energy density

Energy density is the amount of energy that can be stored in a given substance. Long, deep-sea shipping trips rely on fuels with high energy density because they can be carried along without adding too much weight. However, all of the current zero-carbon fuel alternatives have a much lower energy density than conventional fuel, which poses a challenge.


Not all fuels are liquid at the same temperatures. Shipping vessels often prefer liquid fuels because they are easily integrated into the structure of a vessel, saving cost, weight, and space relative to gas fuels. Among the alternatives, hydrogen and methane are liquid only at temperatures of hundreds of degrees Celsius below zero, while ammonia is liquid at negative 28 degrees celsius, and methanol is liquid at room temperature.

Other greenhouse gases produced

Some of the alternative fuels still release greenhouse gases. The fuels that release carbon dioxide, such as methane and methanol, can only be zero-carbon if it is paired with carbon-capture technology such as that of Carbon Engineering. Other gases that are released, such as nitrous oxide from ammonia — which has a much higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide — need to be accounted for.

Despite that slew of options, scalability is the largest roadblock to adoption of this technology. Vancouver may be a hub for hydrogen energy technology companies, but Blomerus highlighted the current plans to build Canada’s largest renewable-energy-powered hydrogen plant in Quebec as an example. “All of its hydrogen output is probably only enough to make enough fuel for maybe half, or one, container ship’s-worth of fuel annually,” he said. “So each ship is going to need — at the current state of technology, if we want to use electrolysis — one or two of these plants to make enough fuel for a single ship.”

Ports: building the zero-carbon refuelling infrastructure

Now that there are so many alternative fuels to choose from, how will local infrastructure adapt to the changing fuel demands? “Ports act as the interface between supply and demand,” said Isobel McClure of Arup, a global engineering consulting firm. Given that ports are refuelling stations for the maritime and shipping industry, the type of zero-carbon fuel that is adopted by ships will need to have the appropriate infrastructure for an efficient resupply.

Left, Joep Bollerman of Lloyd’s Register speaks about his company’s assessment of the actions needed for decarbonization to the audience, pictured right. Photo: Derek Stevens

“I think the important part is the buy-in from the different ports, to provide the facilities that allow the vessels to operate in an environmentally responsible manner,” said Joep Bollerman of Lloyd’s Register, a global professional services company specialized in the maritime industry. “It would be good for the ports to participate in the efforts to make the infrastructure ready to provide those alternative fuels [...] It cannot just be the shipping company investing in [alternative fuels].”

Given that ports are public entities, the magnitude of expenditure and tolerance for risk is profoundly different from a private corporation, especially given the cost of investment in this space. “You're starting in the magnitude of hundreds of millions for 2030 adoption, and then rising significantly to the tens of billions by 2050 – and this is just for the Port of Vancouver,” said Bollerman. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: the port won’t necessarily invest until there’s mass adoption of particular zero-carbon fuel technologies by ships, but the ships won’t necessarily invest until ports adopt particular zero-carbon fuel infrastructure.

Nonetheless, there is still a strong economic opportunity for the port. Bollerman argued that there is a huge economic benefit for the Port of Vancouver to build infrastructure for zero-carbon fuels, especially if this infrastructure is absent at any nearby competitor port, such as in Tacoma or Seattle.

A just transition for workers

“We are talking about all these amazing technologies that are going to be installed in ports, on ships. And people have to operate this,” said Bollerman. “When I went to school to be an engineer, they didn't teach me about methanol or nuclear, none of that. It was a traditional diesel engine and steam propulsion [education].”

Left, Kendra Macdonald, CEO of Ocean Supercluster Canada; centre, Joep Bollerman, vice president of passenger ships at Lloyd’s Register; right, Juvarya Veltkamp, senior advisor of green ports at C40 Cities. Photo: Derek Stevens

At the heart of this concern is the notion of a just transition — ensuring that workers’ rights and livelihoods are accounted for in the shift to using zero-carbon fuels. Juvarya Veltkamp, senior advisor of green ports at C40 Cities – a global network of cities taking action on climate – spoke of a report from COP27 assessing the need to train and upskill 800,000 seafarers globally to decarbonize the shipping industry. “How are we going to bring everybody along? [...] It can take three years to build a zero-emissions vessel. It takes 10 years to train seafarers.”

“If we want these programs to be successful, we don't just need to invest in the installation and the development of the technology,” agreed Bollerman. “But we also need to worry about the awareness of the people that are going to be operating these assets shoreside and onboard the ship. So we need to make sure that these people are aware of the new technologies and get proper support.”

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