How renewable fuels in the maritime sector can support a just and inclusive energy transition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Stakeholder Opinion

"Maritime biofuels create the potential to accelerate climate impact reductions in transport at lower costs." [Shutterstock/Studio concept]

In the transport sector, the most cost-efficient climate emission reductions can be made in the maritime segment, write Loes Knotter and Eric van den Heuvel.

Loes Knotter and Eric van den Heuvel are experts at the Maritime Working Group of the ART Fuels Forum and Dutch Platform Sustainable Biofuels.

One of the options is the use of drop-in biofuels. These fuels are fully comparable to fuels used like diesel, liquefied natural gas or methanol, and can thus make use of existing infrastructure and engine technology. The use of biofuels has the advantage to quickly reduce climate impact as they are based on biogenic carbon and as such don’t add to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Maritime biofuels create the potential to accelerate climate impact reductions in transport at lower costs. The key advantage being fast market introduction because of less strict fuel regulation compared to other heavy-duty segments. Ship engine manufacturers could take a central role to accelerate meaningful shares and market acceptance of drop-in biofuels by issuing guarantees for these drop-in biofuels.

Furthermore, in the refining process the business case for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), or for green chemistry, can be strengthened by using the lower grades in the maritime sector. This enables optimal use of the green hydrocarbons and the different qualities.

Biofuel conversion technologies currently undergo a shift from specific (e.g. biochemical) towards non-specific (e.g. thermochemical) processes. These technologies allow for a wider variety of waste based and lignocellulosic based feedstocks. Thermochemical processes are maturing fast and their products will enter the markets in the mid 2020s. This lays the foundation for upscaling lignocellulosic based maritime fuels. Feedstock mobilisation is a leading factor and technology can follow as long as the characteristics of feedstocks and their intermediate products are known.

The important challenge is to mobilise biomass feedstock in a sustainable way and with public acceptance. The best opportunities are with lignocellulosic based conversion routes using waste streams that do not compete with food and feed production. These waste based feedstocks, if managed well, have the capacity to have little to no undesired environmental and social impacts and/or to even replace harmful practices with sustainable ones that provide ecosystem services as well as additional value to primary producers, such as to farmers.

The European Green Deal aims for a just and inclusive transition. Marine biofuels present exactly such a case. This requires though the right supporting tools and incentives for a consistent and long-lasting feedstock strategy based on clear principles concerning sustainability and circular economy principles with strong participation of primary producers such as the forestry and agricultural sectors.

Sustainability criteria have already been worked out for most types of biomass and can already be independently assessed via EU approved certification schemes. To ensure both environmental and social sustainability of biomass feedstocks it is necessary to stimulate practices which are directed to diversifying the primary producers’ income and that contribute to improvements in biodiversity and soil health.

Various studies show that in agri-industry production and supply-chains waste streams often represent a large share in total product output. By increasing the number of individual small-scale pre-treatment plants, it is possible to achieve a high scale production output. This is a way to realise an ‘economy of scope’ rather than an ‘economy of scale’, by diversifying the farmers’ revenues and extending the product portfolio produced by a farm.

Examples of supply-chains for biofuels are the conversion from biomass to biocrude oil, or pellets, on a small scale or the valorisation of waste such as biogas through anaerobic digestion. The biocrude oil, pellets and the compressed or liquified biomethane have a higher energy density which facilitates the transport to a centralised large-scale refinery for further upgrading.

The EU Maritime space is a relevant level for incentives and regulation and the European renewable and low-carbon fuels industry does encourage the European Commission to overcome the current lack of action in reducing the climate impact of the international maritime sector. This is in particular relevant as long the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has not yet set out the path and regulatory conditions for decreasing the fossil content of marine fuels. Many sector parties advocate for a renewable fuel and energy carriers blending mandate for the maritime sector.

The mandate should preferably avoid installing administrative multiplier factors because real GHG-emission reduction is needed. The European Commission could extend the Renewable Energy Directive and its sustainability schemes to include the maritime sector. Other options to consider are the introduction of taxation based on energy and carbon intensity. In case it will be decided to extend EU-ETS for the climate emission reductions in the maritime sector, it is necessary to develop the right sector instruments to ensure the uptake of renewable fuels and energy carriers in this sector.

Realising climate abatement in transport is much harder than in other economic sectors. The transition from fossil to green molecules needs an ambitious innovation program and needs to attract more serious policy attention and incentives.

This article is based on series of workshops organised by the Maritime Working Group of the ART Fuels Forum and the Dutch Platform Sustainable Biofuels and a forthcoming publication on feedstock mobilisation for marine biofuels of the Dutch Platform Sustainable Biofuels together with TU Delft.

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