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EU's $250m marine LNG spending spree is a climate dead end

Jun 22 2018

new study released by UMAS estimates that the EU has, to date, directly spent $250 million on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects in the marine sector, providing 50% partnership funding with the private sector to support a total of $500 million investment.

This half-billion of spending will have no significant climate benefits at best, and could potentially increase greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, a conclusion in line with leading research in the field, the study finds., making LNG incapable of achieving the reductions required under the recently adopted International Maritime Organisation (IMO) strategy on reducing GHG emissions from ships.

The study reveals a high-level failure in EU planning, in which short-term improvements to air pollution via replacing heavy fuel oil consumption with Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) come at the expense of locking in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come. Even if public funding on LNG infrastructure ceased by 2025 or 2030, total public expenditures over this period would still amount to US$0.95-1.5 billion; which is at least a five-fold increase from what has already been spent on LNG bunkering infrastructure to date, under EU’s CEF (Connecting Europe Facility) and TEN-T (Trans-European Transport Network) projects.

When including upstream emissions and all sources of GHGs, depending on the fuel’s supply chain and use, a switch to LNG can even increase GHG emissions, relative to conventional fuels in a Business As Usual scenario.

Reducing total annual emissions from shipping in-line with the initial IMO strategy objective of at least 50% GHG reduction by 2050 on 2008 levels, and the Paris Agreement temperature goals, is only possible with a switch to increased use of non-fossil fuel sources (hydrogen, ammonia, battery electrification) from 2030 at the latest and with rapid growth thereafter, as explored in two of the decarbonisation scenarios “limited gas” and “transition”.

Providing sustainable biofuels can be sourced, these could be a growing part of the fuel mix, for example as part of blends, before 2030, which could help to increase the timescale for the introduction of synthetic fuels (e.g. hydrogen and ammonia). 

In the scenario where the growth and duration of LNG as a marine fuel continues, referred to as the ‘high gas’ scenario in the report, then reducing total annual emissions from shipping in-line with the initial IMO strategy objective of at least 50% GHG reduction by 2050 on 2008 levels could only be made possible through GHG reductions being made out-of-sector, a thorny solution, not least as it would leave funds flowing out of the shipping sector, funds that could have been well spent to create real GHG reductions in-sector. Relying more heavily on the use of linkages to other (non-shipping) carbon markets is also dependent on the linkages providing sufficient access to low cost out-of-sector emissions reductions, something which is currently highly uncertain. In addition, the letter and spirit of IMO’s at least 50% absolute reduction commitment by 2050 requires absolute in-sector reductions without market linkages.

Many proponents argue that LNG is a transitional fuel and a natural precursor to biogas (biomethane). However, deep questions remain over the availability of such bioenergy to meet all of shipping’s needs, and uncertainties that this bioenergy will be cheaply available as a gas and not as a liquid. So using the ‘LNG as a transition fuel’ argument seriously risks future pathways to decarbonization, creating a single path dependency and technology lock-in.

“There is an uncertain future demand for LNG as a marine fuel over the next 10 years. On the one hand, it is an option for complying with the 2020 sulphur cap, but as it cannot enable the GHG reductions that have been committed to in the IMO’s initial strategy for GHG reduction, and the Paris temperature goals more generally, it is clear its role in shipping's transition to a low carbon future can only be transient” Domagoj Baresic, Consultant, UMAS and PhD researcher, UCL Energy Institute.

The cash flow for the “Limited Gas” scenario (LNG demand and investment flow in quickly initially, but with the development of zero emissions fuels, the demand for LNG soon peaks and declines) is strongly negative with a Net Present Value of -$211 million (-$100 million if only CAPEX is considered, which is the stranded investment aspect of the cost), which can be considered a direct investment loss by 2050. This scenario shows the potential risk of investing heavily in LNG bunkering infrastructure under Directive 2014/94/EU guidelines, if LNG is not taken up as a marine fuel by the maritime industry. As a result of a higher take up of biofuels and hydrogen (both of which also fall under Directive 2014/94/EU), and a strong push to get closer to the EU 2050 shipping 40% emission abatement target and IMO 2050 targets, LNG never becomes heavily diffused into the shipping industry.

Download the full report