The climate benefit of converting shipping to natural gas is non-existent, a report and following news articles warned recently. True or false? It depends on how you see it.
It was at the end of last month that the Environmental Institute International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) came up with a report that questions the climate benefit of LNG - liquefied natural gas, which is mostly made up of methane. Although combustion of natural gas produces about 25 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions than conventional ship fuels, many engines, especially older ones, also leak methane during operation.
Since methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and over a 20-year period captures 86 times more heat in the atmosphere, the lower carbon dioxide emissions at LNG are eaten up quickly. The report therefore recommends shipping to leave LNG behind and instead focus on techniques such as wind-assisted propulsion, zero-emission fuels, batteries and fuel cells. But is this is really the only right way?
Lars Höglund, CEO of Furetank shipping company which has built six LNG tankers, does not think so.
“LNG is significantly cleaner than oil and better for both public health and the environment. It is a fuel for the future. We do not deny that we have a methane slip in the engines, but it depends on what engine you have and what effect you run on”.
In what way is LNG a fuel for the future?
“The development of engines will be better and better, but above all the availability of biogas will increase. We have already started incorporating biogas into our fuel and eventually, with full biogas incorporation, we can be down to zero emissions.”
With the goal of becoming one hundred percent fossil-free, Furetank and its partners have invested billions in LNG vessels - something they could do thanks to being a family-owned company.
“This is nothing for a quarterly economy. It's about thinking ten, twenty years ahead. Those who are really investing in what is best to do now for the environment and climate; it is family businesses.”
But you have to work in the headwind, says Lars Höglund. In October 2019, the government rejected Swedegas’ plans to connect its natural gas terminal LNG Gothenburg to the Swedish natural gas network. A tough blow to the infrastructure for bunkering greener fuels.
“This has made it impossible for us to be able to mix in between 20 - 30 percent biogas in Gothenburg. In the pipe that goes from Malmö up to Stenungssund, Danish farmers put their biogas in. Something we would have had access to.”
Erik Fridell, professor and researcher at the IVL Swedish Environmental Institute and a member of the Lighthouse program committee, has himself done research on LNG. He thinks that the ICCT report, which is really a compilation of research in the field, is quite well in line with his own view of the fuel.
“The advantages of LNG are that it produces less emissions of air pollution - of particles and sulfur mainly, but also of nitrogen oxides. The risks of accidents are also small, but when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, it has no major advantage.”
As Erik Fridell sees it, LNG is a step forward when it comes to air pollution, but a "step aside" when it comes to greenhouse gases.
“Without any methane leakage, it can best be 20 percent better. It is still a fossil fuel.”
He is not fond of the argument that views LNG as a transitional fuel.
“But that's right, they can run biogas on those engines. But you can also run on other biofuels in existing engines. Another problem is that there is no major supply or demand for biogas because it is too expensive.”
Lars Höglund is aware that the supply of biogas is a challenge, but is still convinced that the investment in LNG as a transition fuel is the right choice.
“The tankers we will have delivered to us in 2020 will be replaced by 2040. The oil companies require this. We shall be completely fossil-free then and maybe run on a completely different fuel. But that doesn´t mean LNG is the wrong choice today. We learn a lot from what we do now.