Overhead view of a port, via Shutterstock

Decarbonising UK shipping and land energy demand

21 April, 2021

Domagoj Baresic

Nishatabbas Rehmatulla

Reading time: 4 minutes

The UK shipping industry has huge potential to become a world leader in decarbonisation and green innovation.

Decarbonisation of the UK domestic shipping should be a key component of the UK strategy towards reaching net zero. Domestic shipping in the UK is a key driver of economic development, through supporting key transport links, trade and innovation.

In addition, domestic shipping often overlaps with international shipping, providing a valuable niche for exploration of low carbon technologies which can in the longer term be applied to international shipping calling at UK ports. The UK Clean Maritime Plan already outlines a broad commitment to a transition to ‘zero emission shipping’. Ascertaining the favourability of certain locations for the early adoption of low carbon shipping in the UK is an area of potentially great relevance for industry and policymakers. One promising direction for such analysis is the development of indicators outlining the suitability of locations for low carbon shipping. These indicators are based on a set of qualitative and quantitative datasets developed through an analysis based on the MarSTF (Maritime Sustainability Transitions Framework) framework. MarSTF, embedded in socio-technical transitions literature and economic geography tries to reconcile the range of socio-technical and socio-economic factors necessary for successful early adoption of alternative fuels in shipping.

Hydrogen and Ammonia as marine fuels in the UK

Hydrogen and ammonia produced from hydrogen are often highlighted as potential alternative fuels for both domestic and international UK shipping. Developing indicators that can ascertain the best locations for adoption of hydrogen and ammonia as low carbon fuels for UK shipping can shed light on how best to develop long term strategies for maritime decarbonisation. At the same time, multiple other sectors on land will require an order of magnitude increase in production of low carbon hydrogen, a point outlined in the UK Government ‘Ten Point Plan’. These hydrogen/ammonia adoption indicators can help to highlight potential synergies between demand and production of hydrogen/ammonia for land-based sectors and shipping.

Potential UK low carbon port clusters and decarbonisation

The preliminary analysis of UK ports through the prism of MarSTF developed hydrogen//ammonia indicators suggests that many different ports in the UK have potential for early adoption of hydrogen and ammonia as marine fuels. Out of 16 clusters identified (based on vicinity of local ports, and domestic/international traffic and fuel sales) only 3 scored very low on suitability for adoption of hydrogen and ammonia. Many scored quite highly and all UK regions had at least one cluster highly suitable for adoption of hydrogen/ammonia. Most had a significant presence of strong local actors who can facilitate adoption of hydrogen and ammonia as marine fuels, presence of renewable energy endowments and potential for synergies with land based demand. It is interesting to note, that the identified clusters are very diverse, including smaller ports, with local ferry connections such as Scapa Bay and Scrabster, but also large international commercial ports such as Felixstowe and Harwich.

10-point plan and UK shipping

The UK ‘Ten Point Plan’ is a promising starting point for a more detailed outline of a decarbonisaiton pathway for UK shipping. Emphasis on offshore wind development, hydrogen, green public transport and green finance are all of relevance in the development of local niches for hydrogen/ammonia fuelled ships. What is necessary now is a more detailed outline of how these aspects would work in practice, but also ways in which exact synergies between different points of the plan can be implemented in practice. Similarly, no mention is made of ammonia, which has shown a lot of potential as a hydrogen carrier and potentially fuel for shipping. Point 6, in particular outlines the potential role of the UK maritime segment. However, most in the plan is on aviation, and even though the ‘Clean Maritime Demonstration Programme’ provides some much needed support for further investment into innovation in green shipping, the plan lacks a more detailed commitment for shipping sector. More work, analysis and policy commitments are necessary in order to secure that the UK shipping industry becomes a world leader in decarbonisation and green innovation, an area in which, if based on the preliminary analysis outlined in this blog, it has significant potential to become.

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