LNG-fuelled ships in the crosshairs as IMO details landmark GHG study

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has released its keenly awaited fourth greenhouse gas study, which starkly shows the huge challenge shipping faces to cut its carbon footprint. Proponents of LNG as shipping’s next fuel will also have reacted with shock to certain findings contained in the report.

Despite thousands of pollution cutting measures carried out by the industry over the past decade, the study shows shipping’s climate impact has grown 10% in just six years. Moreover, shipping emissions are projected to increase by up to 50% until 2050, relative to 2018, the study warns.

The study features carbon intensity for the first time as well as estimates of black carbon emissions from ships, which have consequences both for climate and human health.

Methane is not yet regulated by the IMO but it should be because it has a much stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide

Despite improving its carbon intensity well in recent years, the fact is the world’s merchant fleet is having to transport more cargoes for a rapidly increasing global population.

The greenhouse gas emissions of shipping increased 9.6% from 977m tonnes in 2012 to 1.076bn tonnes in 2018. The carbon intensity of shipping improved by about 11% in this period, but the growth in activity was larger than the efficiency gains. In the next decades emissions are projected to increase by up to 50% until 2050, relative to 2018, despite further efficiency gains, as transport demand is expected to continue to grow. While the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will probably cause a decline in emissions in 2020, they are not expected to significantly affect the projections for the coming decades.

Carbon intensity trends since 2008 show a 21% improvement by 2018, which looks inadequate to reach at least 40% improvement by 2030 as required by the IMO.

Speeds have remained low, whilst installed power has increased. This means there’s more latent emissions embedded in the fleet than in 2012, so emissions are poised to rise steeply if the market drivers of current slow-steaming trends were to reverse

Among other key findings more accurate data has doubled the estimate of the share of shipping emissions that fall in domestic, national inventories – from 15% to 30% – showing that much more attention should be paid to shipping in national GHG policy, and including shipping in nationally determined contributions.

International shipping GHG emissions in 2017 hit a fresh all-time high, breaching the previous peak year of 2008, both calculated using the vessel-based approach.

International shipping still emitted 937m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2018 using the vessel-based approach, only 0.3% lower than the 940m tonnes CO2e emitted in 2008.

For the raft of owners who have built expensive LNG-fuelled ships, the report questions the wisdom of these investments. The sector’s methane emissions increased by 150% in the six-year period because of the increased deployment of LNG-fuelled ships. Data from Clarksons Research shows that including the orderbook, LNG-fuelled ships make up 8.4% of the global fleet in gt terms.

Dr Bryan Comer from the International Council on Clean Transportation urged IMO to crack down on LNG-fuelled ships.

“Methane is not yet regulated by the IMO but it should be because it has a much stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide,” said Comer, who led the review and revision of the study’s bottom-up methodology. “If IMO wants to meet its climate goals, it must take swift action to prevent excess methane emissions from LNG-fuelled ships. We expect IMO to include all greenhouse gases, including methane, in the next phase of the EEDI.”

The study was prepared for the IMO by an international consortium comprising 10 consultancies, research institutes and universities from four continents. The consortium was led by CE Delft.

Jasper Faber, CE Delft’s project manager, commented: “The report will provide the IMO with a factual basis for the negotiations on measures to address greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.”

Shinichi Hanayama, ClassNK’s technical director said the fourth edition of the GHG study had been the most detailed, best edition so far.

Elena Hauerhof, UMAS’s leader of the inventory work, said: “This study represents a significant step forward in estimating emissions inventories, and for the first time uses a fully IPCC -aligned approach to estimate international shipping emissions. The study has also significantly advanced the accuracy of AIS based estimations for any ship, and evidences this by undertaking a detailed validation against fuel consumption and other key parameters reported in EU MRV for over 9000 ships.”

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. I hope everybody reads this. A really terrifying report.

    We have all failed. We are failing now. Idiotic greenwashing with methane powered ships and open loop scrubbers shows the leaders of our industry for what they are – superficial, intellectually lazy, unimaginative, only concerned with gestures and really not interested in anyone or anything beyond their social circles.

    To adopt a catch phrase, the board rooms of our industry are not fit for purpose.

    Read it, ye blockheads, read and weep.

  2. I am still not done reading IMO 4th GHG Report, but so far it basically states the obvious.
    We all knew that:
    1) Shipping emissions are diven by demand
    2) LNG is not not a solution to GHG due to large CH4 emissions
    3) Shipping emission are generally low, and unless we start adopting totally new technologies there is virtually no way to reduce them significantly
    Maybe the only real takeover is the greater impact of domestic shipping.
    BTW, proponents of regulating yet another emission, this time CH4, just don’t get the full picture.
    What is needed is an holistic regulations that tackles Total Life Cycle Externalities, regulating single emissions and implementing thresholds on single emissions (same as implementing a carbon tax instead of an externality tax) will only allow for new and different loopholes and for new solutions that address compliance instead of addressing the root problem.

  3. Am I reading the same report? LNGC methane slip (g/kWh) was overstated in 3rd GHG report by 78% as it was based on older engines, this is an aspect that has seen huge progress.
    OK, LNG is not the whole answer to get to zero, but it is moving in the right direction and it’s available now. How can remaining on oil fuels waiting for the emergence of a game changing green option at some undetermined point in time be regarded as so much of a better plan?

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