Canada must speed decarbonizing ports to slash rising shipping emissions

Canada urgently needs to chart a course of action that will dramatically reduce the shipping sector’s surging greenhouse gas emissions, says an international coalition working to decarbonize the maritime sector.

Each year, international shipping creates a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. If the sector was a country, it would be the sixth largest emitter of CO2 emissions, roughly equivalent to Japan.

It’s important to cut international shipping emissions fast, said Brent Dancey, marine climate action director for Oceans North.

The federal government could take the lead globally by leveraging natural advantages and navigating the pending transition to low- and zero-emissions shipping sooner rather than later, Dancey said.

Canada would benefit by investing in new port infrastructure to kick-start the production and use of low- and zero-emissions shipping fuels to create a network of green shipping corridors, he said.

Upwards of 80 per cent of world trade is transported by ships burning fossil fuels that churn out three per cent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“And those of global emissions are set to go to 13 per cent by 2050,” Dancey said.

“Shipping is a huge and growing source of emissions, and necessary changes are expensive,” he added.

“But Canada is well positioned to be a part of the solution.”

Oceans North and the Vancouver Maritime Centre for Climate have co-operated with international partners Lloyd’s Register Maritime Decarbonisation Hub and Arup, a sustainable development firm, to research and design three potential case studies for the Vancouver, Prince Rupert and Halifax ports to meet demand for zero-emission shipping fuels, Dancey said.

“Every port is different and so is the local energy context,” he said.

“As you start to develop green shipping corridors and zero-emission ports, the plans are really site specific.”

International climate targets mean diminishing the industy’s carbon footprint by at least 50 per cent of 2008 levels by 2050.

Initial efforts must focus on developing newer fuels with extremely strict emission regulations that account for the entire lifecycle of the product, Dancey said.

This means moving away from traditional fossil fuels or heavy fuel oil to low- or zero-emission energy sources, like wind, hydrogen, ammonia or methanol.

Vancouver is the largest port in Canada, and B.C. has the advantage of clean hydropower as its main source of electricity to produce low-carbon fuels like hydrogen or biofuels, Dancey said.

Investing up to $4 billion to establish a green methanol plant in tandem with direct air capture technology, which would draw carbon from the air to help produce the fuel, would help the Port of Vancouver meet the lower levels of demand projected by 2040, the study found.

An ammonia plant outfitted with carbon capture and storage technology would potentially be able to meet 2040 energy demands in the Port of Prince Rupert, a key hub for shipping to Asia.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s offshore wind energy capacity could position the province as a major exporter for low- or zero-emission fuels.

Investing $500 million in the Halifax port could allow it to serve as a central hub for supporting and distributing sustainable ammonia-based fuel from production facilities elsewhere in the province.

The study’s case studies are high-level examples that illustrate serious and practical scenarios that could act as a base to develop more detailed investigation, action and projects in the short term, said Dancey.

“You get a sense of the infrastructure and costs related to that buildout and can start to look at the different benefits for making these big investments.”

Canada could reap natural, economic, financial and social benefits by developing green shipping corridors and hubs while meeting its emissions reduction plan target of net zero by 2050.

Vessels plying Canadian waters produced more than 13 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019.

Almost every province in Canada at the moment can attest to the health hazards and urgency to address the climate crisis, Dancey said.

“I think every Canadian at some point in the last few weeks has had to deal with forest fires or the smoke.”