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Greening shipping through data

While COP 27 and MEPC offer world leaders platforms to navigate towards a greener future, vessel tracking technology presents a more immediate and cost-effective sustainability solution.

Decarbonisation is a huge challenge for the maritime sector, which is currently navigating rising costs, fuel uncertainty, geopolitical conflict, labour shortages and much more. Uncertainty about the future fuels and emissions landscape, both in terms of bunkering infrastructure and fleet composition, has resulted in a chicken and egg situation. Operators are reluctant to commit to a specific fuel for fear of operating and bunkering issues, while ports and bunker suppliers are opposed to investing in infrastructure that may become obsolete if a different fuel dominates the market in the future.

Resolving the disconnect requires support from governments that will guide political will and investments as well as the shipping industry, which must express a consensus about the shape of the future. The end of this year presents important opportunities for alignment on both fronts with COP 27 being held in Sharm El Sheikh from 6-18th November and the International Maritime Organizations’ Marine Environment Protection Committee gathering online and in London from 12-16th December.

While the conversations that take place in both locations will determine our future, there can be no doubt that maritime must also take immediate action to meet pre-agreed emission targets by 2050 – and to comply with incoming regulations such as the IMO’s Carbon Intensity Indicator (CII) and the Energy Efficiency eXisting ship Index (EEXI). Meeting these targets will require benchmarking of the existing fleet so that progress can be measured.

Future focus

ORBCOMM vice president and general manager for container and port solutions Al Tama believes that ship owners must have a clear short-term and long-term approach with the former being driven by data. “It is difficult to see the direction that the market will take in the long term as there is no clear consensus on a single future fuel and thus no focus for investing resources. It’s a really fragmented market at the moment,” he says.

“There are a few front runner fuels, with hydrogen, methanol, ammonia and LNG all viewed as viable alternatives—although LNG is often seen as a bridging fuel that will taper off in the long term. Some operators are also exploring the use of wind-power and battery hybrid technologies. Furthermore, infrastructure to bunker vessels will need to be upgraded to cater to these alternative fuels,” he continues, adding that the landscape is likely to become more challenging as other sectors seek to decarbonise and use the same resources, driving prices up and access down. Shipping lines must also consider retrofitting new technologies and changing operational and safety requirements, as well as recruiting skilled staff.

But, Tama says, there are some immediate changes that operators can make that provide real bang for buck. Existing technologies such as remote vessel tracking, which do not need retrofitting, allow operators to take immediate, cost-effective action on pollution – while the discussion on future fuels continues to evolve. He feels that data gathering and benchmarking fleet-wide emissions are crucial in establishing a plan for the current fleet to operate more efficiently. This will enable operators to measure progress as well as increase transparency.

“Acting now will not only position early movers to demonstrate consistent improvement and compliance, but will also deliver reputational benefits, particularly as ESG reporting becomes more important. Data from vessel tracking quantifies the efforts taken by shipowners to make their fleets greener, to measure and reduce carbon output and of course, to meet their compliance commitments for decarbonisation,” he emphasises.

Tracking progress

Remote vessel tracking presents an ideal way to gather information about individual ships and the global fleet in order to benchmark emissions. By helping to ensure that shipping lines are efficient, shipping tracking can reduce the operator’s carbon footprint. “The bigger the shipping line, the more assets to be managed, for example eliminating situations where fleets are under-utilised,” Tama explains. “After all, not everyone can afford to replace their fleet with modern vessels with low emissions technologies – and scrapping vessels ahead of their design lifespan is certainly not green in the truest sense of the term.”

By constantly knowing where their ships are located, operators can send the closest vessel to an identified destination, cutting unnecessary travel and producing a smaller carbon footprint. This lowers both greenhouse emissions and fuel spending while boosting fleet productivity.

There is also the key element of cost. Over the years, sensor and monitoring technology has become far more affordable from a capex point of view – and the ability to harness data to fine tune operations has paid dividends. “Vessel tracking is what I would call ‘low hanging fruit’ for the maritime industry, in that it is fuel agnostic and such an obvious way to meet commitments to regulators and customers. Plus, it is easy to install without the costs of booking a yard for retrofitting.”

“Even at a basic level, it provides meaningful data such as fuel consumed, carbon emitted, operating profile of a ship and more. But the real advantages come when you get year-on-year data that shows you how the changes to operations or technologies impact your metrics, and you can make informed choices that position you well for the long term,” he states.

Tama points out that while owners may be following the roadmap set by the IMO, they must prepare for the risk of more stringent regional regulation from some countries with aggressive policies to battle climate change. “Being prepared is half the battle. Innovative clean fuel technology will continue to develop in the future, but choices can be made today with existing technology that can help fleets start on the path towards a decarbonised future.”

ORBCOMM is  a leading provider of industrial IoT and M2M solutions, delivering remote real-time visibility, traceability, monitoring and control to multiple industries, including container logistics, the cold chain and cargo distribution across land and sea. It also the world’s largest provider of maritime AIS data, tracking vessel locations across the globe.