Liquefied petroleum gas promoted as 'green' shipping fuel by Korean researchers

LPG is "an attractive eco-friendly fuel" that can bridge the transition to zero-carbon shipping, according to researchers at Korea Maritime and Ocean University. Environmentalists say using the fossil fuel risks locking-in carbon emissions when greener alternatives are emerging to decarbonise a highly polluting sector.

Shipping, sunset, Hamburg
The maritime sector has seen a surge of interest in LNG as a shipping fuel as climate concerns and tougher regulations push the industry to tackle its giant carbon footprint. Image: Martin Damboldt via Pexels

The shipping industry’s efforts to decarbonise will be helped by using liquid petroleum gas (LPG) as a fuel, a South Korean university has proposed, describing the fossil fuel as “eco-friendly” in a science paper published this month.

The study by researchers from the Korea Maritime and Ocean University, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production on 1 January, found that using LPG as an alternative to traditional shipping fuels could lower air pollution, reduce costs and be used by ships of all sizes.

Shipping is a carbon-intensive sector, accounting for 2-3 per cent of global emissions, and is notoriously difficult to decarbonise. Alternatives to the highly-polluting bunker fuel are not currently available at the size, scale or price needed for wide-scale adoption, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, the sector’s main trade association.

The study’s authors found that converting ships to LPG cut carbon dioxide emissions by 10–14 per cent compared to bunker fuel, reduced the amount of fuel consumed by 7.5–10.4 per cent, and costs by 8.8–25.9 per cent.

The research team, led by Dr Won-Ju Lee, recommended that LPG be promoted as “an attractive eco-friendly marine fuel” by subsidising prices and formulating government policies that favour its usage.

The paper emerges as debate intensifies over how to define natural gas as the world transitions to low-carbon fuel to tackle the climate crisis. While burning gas generates lower emissions than oil or coal, the production, transport and consumption of gas are still powerful climate agitants.

Publication of the paper emerges six months after Russia, the world’s second largest gas producer, marketed the fossil fuel as a “green” alternative to coal at an event targeted at Southeast Asian policymakers.

The South Korean government announced plans on 30 December to include liquefied natural gas (LNG) in a classification—otherwise known as the “K-taxonomy”—for green investments. In its announcement, the Ministry of Environment said that LNG is considered “a necessary transition fuel for the net-zero transition.”

The European Union (EU) is also considering classifying some projects involving the fossil fuel as sustainable investments, amid controversy. The draft version of the taxonomy prompted a coalition of powerful investors, including BlackRock—the world’s largest asset manager—to send an open letter to the EU on 12 January to rethink the decision. 

Dongjae Oh, a researcher for Seoul-based environmental group Solutions for our Climate (SFOC), told Eco-Business that while using LPG will result in lower air pollution than bunker fuel, carbon emissions reductions of 10-14 per cent are “quite low.”

He pointed to a greenhouse gas study by shipping industry body International Maritime Organization (IMO) which projects shipping emissions to increase by up to 50 per cent by 2050 relative to 2018 levels, as the sector continues to grow. Shipping transports 80 per cent of the world’s trade.

“Considering that ships have an average lifespan of about 20-30 years, we risk locking in significant carbon emissions if LPG becomes the next major shipping fuel,” Oh said. “We should focus instead on developing technologies that use fuels with clearer emission-reducing benefits, such as green hydrogen and ammonia.”

Hans van Mameren, founder of Singapore-based renewables firm Energy Renewed, who has 50 years of experience in the shipping trade, said that while the heavy fuel oil that many ships run on is high polluting, that does not make LPG clean, “only less dirty”.

Smaller ships running on marine diesel oil can quite easily be converted to electric, said van Mameren, whose firm hatched a plan in 2019 to electrify a million diesel boats in Southeast Asia. “Then all on-board emissions are reduced by 100 per cent,” he said. “At best, LPG is an intermediate solution.”

Assaad Razzouk, chief executive of renewables firm Gurīn Energy and a board member of EB Impact, noted that at least 40 per cent of shipping traffic carries fossil fuels or chemicals derived directly from fossil fuels.

“Not only is it [promoting LPG as eco-friendly] aiming to find new uses for fossil fuels when we need to transition our way out of them, but it is also a distraction.”

Some of the industry’s key players have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by investing in low-carbon fuels. On Friday, Maersk, the world’s largest shipping line, brought forward its net-zero emissions target by a decade, to 2040, and aims to transport a quarter of its freight using greener fuels, including methanol and green ammonia, in 2030. 

These fuels are now more than double the price of conventional fuels, but Maersk’s customers are prepared to pay the higher cost, the company’s chief executive of fleet and strategic brands, Henriette Hallberg Thygesen told Reuters. Maersk is also lobbying the IMO for a global carbon tax on shipping fuels to allow lower-carbon fuels to become cost competitive with fossil fuels faster.

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