'Carbon Neutral' Container Ships Are Greenwashing, Experts Say

Shipping giant Maersk says it bought eight ships that could be carbon neutral using "green methanol." But experts say such a thing is "extremely unlikely."
August 26, 2021, 1:00pm
Maersk container ship
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On Tuesday, the international shipping giant Maersk announced it was buying eight large vessels to be delivered in 2024, with an option for four more vessels in 2025. The purchase was worthy of a press release and widespread news coverage because the ships can run on what the company calls "carbon neutral methanol," which "will offer Maersk customers truly carbon neutral transportation at scale on the high seas."

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While 12 carbon-neutral ships would account for just 1.6 percent of the company's 706 vessels, it would still be an important milestone for the shipping industry, which comprises approximately 2.5 percent of global emissions. Along with airplanes, shipping has one of the hardest paths to zero emissions in the transportation world. And it's difficult to imagine a world without these ships and the containers that are stacked on them, an infrastructure system perhaps singularly responsible for the globalized economy. Unlike cars and trucks, where electric motors powered by large batteries or hydrogen fuel cells exist and are to varying extents on the market today, air and sea-borne vessels are too heavy to be powered by such technology for the foreseeable future. Proving the viability of truly carbon neutral cargo ships, even on a small scale, would indeed be a huge step to prove it is possible to move tens of thousands of shipping containers across the ocean in an environmentally friendly way.

But, "carbon neutral methanol" is incredibly unlikely to be carbon neutral, according to three experts interviewed by Motherboard. It is a type of so-called "green" fuel that is mostly theoretical at this moment, but insofar as it can be produced, it will be in a method that may well increase emissions.

Experts critical of these types of so-called "green" fuels say carbon-neutral methanol is just another form of greenwashing. "Green methanol is a petrochemical product created through byproducts from fossil fuel development, moving those molecules around, then moving them through the atmosphere," Jim Walsh, a senior energy policy analyst at the nonprofit Food and Water Watch told Motherboard. "They're making a lot of assumptions about the inputs relating to green methanol which we know are false."

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In order to understand why, it helps to go through exactly how companies like Maersk are saying green methanol works. "Maersk will operate the vessels on carbon neutral e-methanol or sustainable bio-methanol as soon as possible," the company said in its press release, without providing further details. The Methanol Institute, an industry group funded by methanol producers and users including Maersk, explains in a bit more detail how this is supposed to happen. In short, captured CO2 is combined with water and electricity to create liquid methanol. Maersk and the Methanol Institute did not respond to a list of questions sent by Motherboard.

But you don't need to have aced high school chemistry to understand why this fuel isn't really carbon neutral. Each step of this process includes raw materials that are either unlikely or impossible to be truly carbon neutral. 

Most obviously is the CO2, a key component for "green" methanol. For e-methanol, the CO2 would have to be either captured from the ambient air or directly taken from a fossil fuel-burning plant. But there are problems with both approaches. On the one hand, the capability to capture CO2 from the ambient air at scale does not currently exist, said John Fleming, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. He said it is "little more than a theory used by fossil fuel companies to promote more production and use of their product." 

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On the other hand, to capture CO2 from the smokestacks of oil-burning plants defeats the concept of carbon neutrality, since it would mean methanol requires the burning of fossil fuels to be produced. This undermines the whole point of combating climate change and reducing emissions, which is to stop burning fossil fuels. Or, as Walsh put it, "Carbon capture technology doesn’t actually remove any CO2 from the atmosphere. It actually just reduces smoke stack emissions" before releasing those same compounds into the air later. In order to argue this process is carbon neutral, one would have to assume, Walsh said, that "burning fossil fuels is a foregone conclusion."

There are other problems with "green" methanol, too. For "bio-methanol", the CO2 could be sourced from "biogenic" CO2, Fleming said, which could be taken from places that emit methane like capped oil wells or landfills, but that has its own proven environmental harms, including the release of said methane, which has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2. Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, summarized the problem as follows: "Ultimately methanol comes from methane which comes from natural gas." 

Not only is it currently basically impossible to produce methanol in a truly carbon neutral fashion, but it also has environmental impacts beyond carbon release that would harm the environment. Jacobson has spent years researching the environmental impact of ethanol, a biofuel blended into gasoline thanks to massive federal corn subsidies. While the long-term effects are complex, the short answer is it increases emissions, toxic pollutants in drinking water, cancer and asthma rates, and toxic algae blooms, among other bad things. And, according to Jacobson, "methanol has similar air pollution impacts, particularly as one of its byproducts is formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen and strong ozone producer in photochemical smog."

In short, Jacobson summarized his position on "green" methanol as: "I would not pursue methanol for any purpose due to its air pollution impacts from combustion alone. However, for them to say it is carbon neutral is extremely unlikely." 

Or, as Walsh put it, "If you have to say 'green' in front of something, it’s probably bad."