Alternative Fuels and Seafarer Safety

We are currently in the early stages of the 4th industrial revolution – an era of high-emerging technology and artificial intelligence, resulting in rapid changes in technology, industries and cultural norms due to increasing interconnectivity and automation.

But, simultaneously we are experiencing a change in global climate, a global warming and the existential dangers that such a change could bring.

Ships are responsible for 3% of global GHG emissions. In 2015, The Paris Agreement (Accord) was negotiated at the United Nations Climate Change Conference with a long term goal to keep the rise in mean global temperature to below 2c and preferably limit the increase to 1.5c. During 2023, in support of the Paris Agreement, the IMO adopted a “Revised Strategy” with an undertaking to reduce GHG emissions from ships by 100% or close to by 2050. Green House Gas emissions (GHG) have to be reduced by approximately 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

This means there is an ever tightening time frame for ship owners and operators to adopt and implement alternative fuels.

Over the next three decades, the shipping industry will face unprecedented challenges as it strives to achieve these targets. These challenges involve the introduction of alternative new fuels, fuels that will replace the current heavy oil and marine diesel oil. Proposals for these fuels include ammonia, methanol and hydrogen with liquified natural gas (LNG) viewed as a transitional fuel (as it is a fossil fuel which contains carbon).

All of these fuels are inherently dangerous to the seafarer and offer previously unfamiliar hazards.

What we do know, is that the industry will be required to develop higher crew competence levels when inter-acting with these fuels and rethink the approach to storage, handling and safety. At The Seafarers’ Charity, we believe the seafarer must not be forgotten on this journey. It is the seafarer who is on the frontline and therefore the most at risk. They will ultimately prove to be the success or failure of this initiative and with the environment likely to be a major topic on the global maritime agenda for decades to come, failure is not an option.

Alternative fuels – some Questions and Answers

  • Q: What is an ‘alternative fuel’.
  • A: An alternative fuel is a fuel that can be used to fuel propulsion instead of fuel oil (eg. Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO), Marine Gas Oil (MGO), Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO).
  • Q: Is liquified natural gas (LNG) an alternative fuel?
  • A: Under this definition – Yes, although as a fossil fuel, it is often considered as a ‘transitional’ fuel.

  • Q: So what are the proposed alternative fuels?
  • A: Methanol and ammonia for deep sea vessels, hydrogen (power cells) for near coastal vessels such as riverine traffic and short ferry service.

  • Q: Why is there so much concern over alternative fuels?
    There is currently no operational data concerning the use of these fuels for ship propulsion. They have never previously been used in marine engines and all are considered as more dangerous than existing fuels commonly used. New standards still need to be agreed on safe storage and handling practices. Therefore: These fuels possess an elevated operational and environmental risk.

In conclusion

All of these alternative fuels have one thing in common, they are all more hazardous to the seafarer than existing fuels and there are serious issues of effective crew training and familiarisation to be identified if accidents and incidents are to be mitigated.

It is important that the impact on the seafarer is taken into account when considering the use of alternative fuels. This includes their physical safety and health, their mental wellbeing and importantly, their psychological safety in respect of their levels of comfort with using alternative fuels.

Sea Views Podcast: Green Fuels with Captain Jeff Parfitt of The Nautical Institute The impact of maritime decarbonisation on wellbeing: Findings of an ISWAN survey of seafarers and shore-based staff