The UK’s drive for zero-emission ships

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps recently announced that he wants zero-emission ships introduced into UK waters in as little as four years. Frankie Youd speaks with Steven Lua, CEO of clean energy solutions provider Unitrove, to discuss the feasibility of the target and which areas the industry should be focusing its attention on.

The global shipping industry is one of the most polluting in the world, with the International Maritime Organisation reporting that the industry emits around 940 million tonnes of CO2 annually, making it responsible for around 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

These statistics have been discussed time and time again by government officials, with talks on how they can be reduced, either by the implementation of regulations or by guidelines when it comes to ship design.

During London International Shipping Week, UK transport secretary Grant Shapps called for an absolute zero target for international shipping emissions alongside the introduction of zero-emission ships in UK waters within five years. 

During the event Shapps commented: “Taking action now allows us to lead the charge on this global shift, creating highly skilled jobs for British workers and shaping the landscape for what clean shipping and trade will look like for future generations.”

Although the target would see the industry’s emission contribution drop considerably there is debate surrounding the feasibility of this call when it comes to considering the existing infrastructure which is in place as well as the availability of clean fuels.

Frankie Youd: Could you provide some background on Unitrove and what work is carried out?

Steven Lua: The company was founded back in 2008, the background of the company traditionally validated in specialising in liquefied natural gas (LNG) technologies, natural gas technologies. The company focused a lot on decarbonisation technologies involved with heavy-duty trucks, designing, building fuelling stations for trucks and lorries.

In 2015, we were asked to build an LNG bunkering facility for the Teesside area. That was the first LNG bunkering facility in the UK, and our first venture into the fuelling of ships with alternative fuels. It was quite interesting at that point because we realised that the size and the scale of ships was on a different scale than for trucks. At that point, we started to think about maybe we should reconsider how to decarbonise the ships rather than how many thousands of trucks we’d have to do.

The company plans to deliver the world’s first liquid hydrogen bunkering facility, how does this work and what does this involve?

It’s modelled very similarly to the one that we developed for the Teesside, except rather than being for LNG, this is for liquid hydrogen. It’s what I would call a ‘nanoscale module’, or an infrastructure module.

It’s relatively small, no more than a few metres long and a few metres wide – it’s not a massive plant as a lot of people tend to think, no big concrete foundations. We’re looking at trying to shrink the infrastructure as small as possible. 

The idea is that it would be an interface between the ships that needed to be fuelled and fuel containers. They’ll be brought to the jetty and connected to the box and then when offloaded these containers will then disappear.

Once the bunkering has been completed the tankers are disconnected and taken away, which from the port side of things is great because that means that they don’t have to store any flammable product at the jetty.

Do you think that the industry is on target to achieve the UK Government’s zero-emission and green vessel goal?

The UK Government’s one is quite interesting, I sat watching Rachel Maclean being grilled by a panel on the transport decarbonisation plan, and through that, they addressed all the different modes of transport. 

What’s quite interesting – from my perspective – is the way that the government has handled shipping and aviation, they say that the focus is mainly on domestic emissions.

Now if you start to say we’re only going to start considering domestic as a priority right now, domestic aviation emissions or domestic shipping emissions, then you’re really cutting out a huge part of the problem. Most people when they take a plane they’re travelling abroad, rather than travelling within the country and likewise, with the shipping, the worst pollutants are the ones that are travelling overseas.

In that respect, it makes their job a lot easier when they say: “Right we’re going to focus on domestic emissions”, and then they’ll say it’s a very, very small fraction of total transport emissions. 

If they looked at it that way they could say: “It’s very easy for us to decarbonize that very small slice of the pie and we’ll focus on converting all the vessels that we have in operation domestically to either run on electricity or perhaps hydrogen.” That certainly makes the task a lot easier for them.

I don’t think it’s really tackling the real issue which is international shipping. That’s the part where I’m a bit sceptical as to whether that’s going to happen or not and how far they’ll go with that.


Where do you think the industry should be focusing its attention to achieve this change?

If we talk just purely on maritime, there’s a lot of focus, at least from the government, on purely the vessel side and the idea that we’re going to be building the next generation of clean ships and a lot of the financing has gone towards that. 

There’s not been as much drive around or thinking about the infrastructure side, how are we going to be able to fuel these vessels. If we don’t get the infrastructure in place by the mid-2030s I think we’re getting very stuck. Are we going to be confident we’re going to be able to meet these targets?

I think that the maritime sector is at the bottom of the rung in terms of transport decarbonisation. Most of the time people have the narrative with cars, trains, and planes and these are all in the public eye, whereas shipping is not. I think for that reason as well, it’s not necessarily a vote winner.

The government then focuses on things that seem to be the vote winner type of issues and maybe making announcements such as: “We’re going to invest in the new generation of autonomous clean ships” and “We’re going to create new jobs and bring shipbuilding back to the UK.” 

That’s a narrative that fits quite well with the agenda but to kind of say: “We’re going to roll out zero-emission infrastructure” that doesn’t quite have the same sort of soundbites to it, so certainly I think it’s something that there needs to be a lot of focus on.

If we then look at the hydrogen and the green hydrogen, there’s a big obsession at the moment with the production of green hydrogen which is great because that can go into all sorts of industries. 

However, I feel that there’s a lack of thought process between what’s produced at the end of that production process, and actually having that green hydrogen in a format that is suitable for maritime fuels. The fuels either have to be compressed to very high pressure – or in our case, we’re considering the liquefaction of hydrogen – just having low-pressure hydrogen from a production plant is no good for any vehicle.

What would you like the future to hold for shipping?

I think shipping needs to change, not least in the aspect of transparency, I feel that’s kind of the starting point. I think what’s quite fascinating when you listen to government sound bites of “net-zero by 2050” or “we need to do everything we can in the next 30 years or so to meet our goals” and then, noting that a lot of the focus is on what the public can see, like cars. They talk about electrification of cars, then trucks coming next, then planes and trains, or trains and then planes, and then shipping on the bottom of the agenda – or at least that’s the way I kind of see it.

I think there’s a lack of transparency in the industry, I know that’s changing now, but because of that lack of transparency, it’s meant that if we look at the IMO’s targets their ambition is only to achieve 50% greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 not the full 100% emissions by 2050. 

What they are saying is we’re only going to do 50% reductions by 2050, therefore other industries are going to have to do more than what they’re expected to do. Shipping cannot think that it’s somehow different from all these other industries.

Another issue is that some people are only looking at their own domestic emissions and never taking responsibility for the international emissions – nobody wants to take responsibility for that bit in between. Each time people tried to provide solutions at the IMO, they’re often shot down or they’re watered down, and then it becomes very difficult. I think that needs to be considered and looked at.