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What is green about methanol?

Not all methanol is created equal and not all companies are Maersk

Maersk is to be applauded for its ambition. But for mass adoption of methanol fuel to make environmental sense, the molecule shipping uses must be truly green — and there is plenty to suggest it won’t be

THE delivery of Maersk’s first methanol-powered ship, alongside its own methanol production firm, is a good news story. But is it a green shipping story?

Maersk should be commended for taking its responsibility as one of the world's leading shipping companies to invest its own cash in new technologies and the decarbonisation of its fleet. Our industry needs more pioneers such as Maersk that put their money where their mouth is.

But let’s be clear here — methanol is not innately green.

When you burn methanol, you emit CO2. That’s just basic chemistry. And the rainbow of marketing labels being painted on various projects have obscured the true ‘greenness’ of the fuels.

The mass-balanced methanol Maersk is using on its maiden voyage has a certified greenhouse gas reduction of 65%. Not net zero, but certainly far better than the alternatives.

Maersk has plumped for bio-methanol, produced by using methane captured from decomposing organic waste at landfills. What it is doing is transparent, verifiable and represents a tangible reduction in emissions — hence the legitimate fanfare over this week's vessel launch.

It also goes some way toward explaining why so many others, notably many of its competitors, have decided to follow “influencer” Maersk down the methanol path.

Whether driven by FOMO (fear of missing out) or risk hedging, just over 8% of the current orderbook is touting some formulation of methanol power as its green credentials. That share is projected to rise.

But not all methanol is created equal and not all companies are Maersk.

Yes — bio-methanol can be sustainable, but it is not scalable. And not everyone is as transparent as Maersk.

Saying you will buy the costly, sustainable kind of methanol from waste products doesn’t mean you will. Very few companies are providing well-to-wake assessments of their plans to fuel this influx of methanol-“ready” ships.

Those looking to ape Maersk’s lead well understand that there will never be enough of this landfill biogas to fuel even a very small part of the shipping industry, not least because other hard-to-abate industries like aviation are competing for it as well.

They will have also noted the eye-watering sums Maersk is spending to create its own supply chain in order to pull off this feat of green innovation.

Maersk has been buying up third-party green methanol supplies to fuel its newbuildings. But setting up its own independent company, C2X, to build, own and run production assets, takes truly deep pockets that few possess.

It is naive to assume the industry will use sustainable bio feedstocks given their higher cost and scarcity.

Europe is now waking up after 10 years to the reality that around a third of its supposedly waste-cooking oil-based biodiesel for road transport is actually virgin palm oil. That’s the palm that is the biggest culprit of deforestation in south-east Asia, in case you were wondering.

So if not bio-methanol, then what?

‘E-methanol’ made from renewable electricity is the only sustainable and scalable option, but that requires far more transparency about the well-to-wake credentials of your power than any shipping company can offer.

Grey methanol, made from fossil gas, is worse than VLSFO on a well-to-wake basis.

Methanol produced using fossil fuels will delay, not abate, emissions. Besides, if the rest of the economy truly decarbonises in line with the Paris Agreement, then supply is going to be severely constrained.

If that wasn’t disincentive enough then it’s worth pointing out that, under EU rules, if a factory or power plants captures and gives CO2 to e-methanol suppliers, those factories/plants are still required to pay for that CO2 under the ETS and are kept responsible for their abatement.

Which brings us to carbon capture and storage, the current plug to all decarbonisation strategies leaking under the pressure of even the merest hint of scrutiny.

CO2 harvested through Direct Air Capture borrows a CO2 molecule from the air that was emitted decades ago. That process is incredibly costly and difficult to mass-produce because only 0.04 % of the air is CO2. If you burn methanol based on Direct Air Capture CO2, you don’t reduce global CO2 levels, you merely keep them at break-even.

So while it is realistically the only sustainable and scalable source of CO2 that could make e-methanol climate neutral; the cost will likely undermine e-methanol’s economics vis-a-vis genuinely zero-carbon fuels, such as e-ammonia.

In short: methanol is not green unless it’s green, and there is much to suggest it won’t be. To get it wrong would be to squander cash on true decarbonisation.

Shipping must explore every avenue on its decarbonisation journey. But serious scrutiny is needed if the generation of dual-fuelled methanol ships about to hit the water is to live up to the hype.

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