The Laura Maersk is a relatively small 2,100-tonne container ship that will sail around the Baltics. But it’s a significant addition to the giant Maersk shipping line’s 700-strong fleet. Launched by EU Commission President Ursula von Der Leyden last month to sounds of a Danish choir singing Bob Dylan’s The Times They are a’Changin’, it’s Maersk’s — and the world’s — first green-methanol-run freight vessel. If all goes according to plan, there will be many more Maersk ships using the environmentally friendly fuel.

Maersk is going full steam ahead with its ambitious goal of building a green-methanol fleet. It has 24 more green-methanol, dual-engine ships ordered from Hyundai’s Mipo shipyard. Maersk originally planned to launch its first green ships only by 2030 so it’s now seven years ahead of schedule.

“This very ship has become the catalyst for change,” says Maersk chairman Robert Uggla, adding: “Hopefully, this is the beginning of a green revolution in global supply-chains.” The newer ships will be 20,000 teu (20-ft container) giants. ‘The reason for going with green methanol is it’s an available technology and a scalable solution,” says a company spokesperson.

Maersk is one of the world’s shipping heavyweights and where it sails, it’s betting others will follow. Right now, cargo and container fleets run mainly on dirty diesel-based bunker fuels. It’s estimated there are some 100 green methanol powered ships already ordered across the industry. Chinese shipping company Cosco has ordered 12 green-methanol ships. More important, Cosco has tied up with three other firms, including the Shanghai International Port Group, to create what it calls a green-methanol industrial chain.

China is looking at green methanol to power everything from automobiles to trucks and public transport, aware the carbon-neutral fuel could help them to achieve climate targets.

It’s vital to build infrastructure globally if green methanol is to become the shipping industry’s go-to fuel. Green-methanol production is still low, with less than 0.2 million tonnes produced annually. Maersk has formed a joint-venture, C2X, that will develop and run production facilities: the company is looking to kick off with a $3-billion facility in Egypt. Why Egypt? Because it’s near the Suez Canal, a global maritime hub with ready customers.

Maersk knows its green-fuel plans will only succeed if other large shipping companies follow suit in order to reduce costs. Methanol production costs are significantly higher and won’t beat fossil fuels on price until capacity starts to catch up.

For now, Maersk has tied up with Norwegian company, Equinor, to keep the Laura Maersk on the high seas. In the US, it has struck a deal with a company, Carbon Sink, to supply the fuel at different ports. Another company, Houston-based SunGas Renewables, will invest up to $2 billion for a plant to produce 400,000 tonnes of green methanol that will be bought by Maersk.

Domestic initiatives

Closer to home, Umwelt, a Danish company, has plans for an $850-million Tamil Nadu plant to produce 100,000 tonnes of green methanol annually. The facility will have 500MW wind/solar plants that will produce energy to create green hydrogen. That, in turn, will be combined with carbon dioxide to create methanol. In Madhya Pradesh, a company, Jakson Green, has tied up with NTPC for a methanol facility at the Vindhyachal Thermal Power Plant.

India is looking at industries in which green methanol can be used. NITI Aayog believes it can be used to power rail, road and shipping. Besides that, it reckons it can partially replace LPG for cooking. “Blending of 15 per cent methanol in gasoline can result in at least 15 per cent reduction in the import of gasoline/crude oil,” says a NITI Aayog paper.

What are green methanol’s advantages over conventional fuels? Highly polluting container ship fuels contribute 3 per cent of global carbon-dioxide emissions. Green methanol can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 95 per cent and nitrogen oxide by 80 per cent. Also, it eliminates sulphur-oxide and particulate-matter emissions. Crucially for the shipping industry, it can be transported and used at room temperatures.

Maersk takes its net-zero commitments seriously and aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2040. It’s looking at all elements of its logistics chain from its buildings, to warehouses and vehicles that carry goods from one point to another. In India, for example, it has a fleet of electric-powered three-wheelers and small vans. The company notes there’s also customer pressure and half its top 200 clients have their own net-zero targets. It would obviously help them to reach those targets if the supply-chains also are green.