Maersk looks at biofuels as it sets its sights on carbon neutrality by 2050

Shipping containers are unloaded from the deck of the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moeller Triple-E Class container ship, operated by A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, in the Port of Bremerhaven in Bremerhaven, Germany. Photographer: Kristian Helgesen/Bloomberg
Shipping containers are unloaded from the deck of the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moeller Triple-E Class container ship, operated by A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, in the Port of Bremerhaven in Bremerhaven, Germany. Photographer: Kristian Helgesen/Bloomberg

A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S is about to conduct the shipping industry’s biggest test yet of biofuel as it seeks to cut emissions and meet its target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

The Mette Maersk, one of the company’s biggest vessels, will this month set off on a 25,000 nautical miles round trip from Rotterdam to Shanghai using a blend containing 20 percent of so-called second-generation biofuel produced from plant waste. The switch should save the environment 1.5 million kilograms of CO2, the equivalent of what 200 households emit in a year.

“This biofuel project is the first concrete action in our effort to reach our goal of becoming carbon-neutral,’’ Soren Toft, Maersk’s chief operating officer, said in an interview in Copenhagen. “We’re looking for ways to make carbon-neutral sailing commercially viable, because that’s key if the industry is to move ahead.”

Maersk, which operates about a fifth of the world’s container fleet, has invested $1 billion over the last four years to improve energy efficiency.

The test is being organized by the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition and Maersk is partnering with some of its biggest clients in the Netherlands, including Heineken, Unilever and Philips. Shell will sponsor the fuel and all the parties will share the costs, which will be “significantly” higher than for a trip using normal marine fuel, Toft said, declining to elaborate.

Alternative Solutions

About 90 percent of the world’s goods are transported by the shipping industry, which is responsible for about 3 percent of global CO2 emissions. Maersk estimates that this rate could rise to 15 percent by 2050 if the industry doesn’t come up with less polluting alternatives.

Toft said using biofuel only removes “a fraction’’ of the CO2 that a ship normally emits, meaning it may only offer a “short-term or medium-term solution.’’

“We can’t say if biofuel will end up being the future that will help the industry,’’ Toft said. “We’re hoping to find some of the answers here with this trial.’’

Maersk is also working on other, cleaner, fuels for its more than 600 ships. These include ammonia, hydrogen and electric batteries, Toft said.

“Batteries would obviously only work for short trips close to the coast line, because the technology isn’t very developed yet and, like with cars, you would need to recharge often,” he said.

Last year, D/S Norden completed what it said was the world’s first test voyage with a large commercial ocean-going vessel powered by biofuel. The trip was with a product tanker vessel, which sailed the short stretch from Rotterdam to Tallinn, Estonia.

The Mette Maersk, which can carry 18,000 containers, is expected back in Europe in June.

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