Can Global Shipping Go Zero Carbon? : The Indicator from Planet Money A lot of the stuff we buy comes via ship, using a particularly dirty kind of fuel. Now the shipping industry wants to change.

Can Global Shipping Go Zero Carbon?

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Hey. It's Stacey and Cardiff. And today on THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY, we've got something a little different for you. The NPR Science Desk has been hard at work these last few months working on a new daily podcast. What else?


Yeah, that's right. It's called Short Wave, and it's terrific. It's all about science, of course, but that also means that sometimes it'll be about economics because here at THE INDICATOR, everything...

VANEK SMITH: Everything's economics.

GARCIA: ...Feels like it's about economics. Right.

VANEK SMITH: It's true. You can't escape it.

GARCIA: But as Stacey said, Short Wave is daily, just like us. And it's about 10 minutes long, also just like us.

VANEK SMITH: In short, they've made a lot of really good decisions. And we thought you might appreciate a taste, so without further ado, here is Short Wave from NPR.


MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: I'm your host, Maddie Sofia, here with Rebecca Hersher, who covers climate for NPR. And, Becky, you told me this mind-blowing fact earlier. If all the ships on Earth were a single country, that country would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Yeah, right after the nation of Japan, 'cause here's the thing. There are thousands of huge ships, and they carry, like, 90% of what you buy here in the U.S.


HERSHER: And they burn this extremely dirty fuel. It's called heavy fuel oil. Sometimes it's called bunker fuel.

SOFIA: That doesn't sound great.

HERSHER: And, listen; I cover a lot of, like, big pollution-heavy industries as a climate reporter. And shipping has something going for it that's kind of cool, which is that they have publicly acknowledged that they have a problem - they're dirty.

SOFIA: That's the first step.


SOFIA: Hi, I'm shipping. I have a problem.

HERSHER: And I have a problem, and it is greenhouse gases. Second, they're actually trying to change it, which is good. So international regulators are already cracking down. And this is kind of wild. Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world, has already promised to go zero carbon by 2050.

SOFIA: Zero.

HERSHER: Zero - no emissions from any of their ships.


SOFIA: Today on the show, can the shipping industry really clean up its act and go zero carbon? The key might be in some super old technology.


SOFIA: OK, Rebecca, it might surprise you that I have not been on a giant shipping vessel before. What are they like?

HERSHER: Yeah, I don't boat either, Maddie, or ship, usually.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Journalist, right?

HERSHER: So I went with a couple of colleagues to visit a regular, normal ship in Baltimore. Let me tell you - extremely large. It's like a cliff rising above you as you drive up to it.

Hi. Rebecca. Nice to meet you.

They were very welcoming. The ship's chief engineer Aleksei Buzlov (ph) gave us a tour of the ship's engine room.

ALEKSEI BUZLOV: So let's go down.

SOFIA: I'm picturing, like, old-timey men shoveling coal into a fire. It's very Titanic-y.

HERSHER: Well, there were old-timey men, but other than that, it's completely different. So it has, like, a huge engine the size of multiple city buses. OK. But what I most noticed was the smell.

Oh, yeah. That smells like gasoline.

BUZLOV: It is gasoline. More and more (unintelligible), you know?

HERSHER: Yeah, so what Aleksei is correctly pointing out is that it smells even worse in there than if they were burning gasoline because they're burning this heavy fuel oil. And there are, like, rows and rows and rows of tanks of it. And fuel oil is really thick and dark. It's like the stuff you put in your car but, like, on steroids.

SOFIA: Gross.

HERSHER: And it covers everything it touches, like all the parts of the engine, in this thick gunk. And there's so much of it that Aleksei - he spends a lot of his day, like, cleaning components. And he collects all that gunk in 55-gallon drums.

SOFIA: So why are we using this stuff?

HERSHER: It's dirty, but it's really efficient. So every drop of that fuel has tons of power in it. It packs a lot of energy into a relatively small space.

SOFIA: Is there a cleaner fuel that could provide the same kind of energy?

HERSHER: Yeah, there is hydrogen.

SOFIA: I've heard of it.

HERSHER: Yeah. You can use it to make electricity without generating any greenhouse gas emissions at all - no soot, no sulfur, no CO2. And the technology to do that's been around for decades. It's called the hydrogen fuel cell. What's new and still unproven is this idea of putting fuel cells onto ships. And to work out the specifics of how to do that, there's actually a group that's building a ship.

SOFIA: We're going to another ship pump.

HERSHER: Yeah, we are. We're leaving Baltimore. We're going across the country. We're going to Oakland. I visited this shipyard where there's a ferry under construction. It's actually going to be the first Coast Guard-certified hydrogen-powered vessel ever in the U.S. It's pretty cool.

SOFIA: So what does this hydrogen-powered boat look like?

HERSHER: Right now, it looks like an aluminum frame...


HERSHER: ...Because it's not really done. But it will look like a ship. And in the meantime, I got the founder of the company, Joe Pratt, to show me around and sort of point out where everything is going to be.

JOE PRATT: This is the floor. And this is kind of where everybody sits. And then it's everything down from that.

HERSHER: So up on the deck, when it's done, that's where the hydrogen and the fuel cells are going to go.

SOFIA: OK, so let's walk through the science of how a hydrogen fuel cell actually works.

HERSHER: OK, so it's nothing like the combustion engine that you're used to in, like, your car. In those, you burn fuel. You combust it to create energy. And so what comes out is gross. It's pollution. It has, like, soot and all sorts of stuff that is not very nice in it.

SOFIA: Right. And a fuel cell just converts hydrogen or another fuel directly into electricity through a different reaction. So no combustion, no burning, no boom.

HERSHER: Exactly. You're just combining oxygen with hydrogen and creating electricity. You can use that electricity to turn a propeller, in this case, and you don't get all that nasty stuff. So instead of carbon and gross exhaust coming out of your tailpipe, you just have clean, moist air.

PRATT: And we can condense the water that the fuel cells produce. And we collect that water, and we'll use it for onboard drinking water.

SOFIA: Give me that sweet, sweet exhaust water.

HERSHER: Yeah. Sounds delicious, right?

SOFIA: OK, so this is my question. If hydrogen is so easy, like, what's it - why haven't we been doing this already?

HERSHER: So remember how I said that heavy fuel oil - like, what they're burning right now that's so dirty - has this one upside, which is that it has tons of energy for every job?

SOFIA: It's efficient.

HERSHER: But hydrogen is less efficient. So for a really long time, engineers just assumed you'd need so much hydrogen to power a ship that it wouldn't work. But then Joe Pratt and his team - what they did is they did an analysis, and they found that, actually, it probably is possible. So that's what they're testing here. They have this design. They're going to build a ferry and see if they can prove that it works.

SOFIA: OK. But, like, are we really going to be able to scale this up to a point where it would make a big difference?

HERSHER: I mean, listen; I'm not going to sit here and guarantee the entire global shipping industry is going to, like, change over to a new fuel tomorrow.

SOFIA: That's what I thought we were doing here.

HERSHER: Oh, wait. Sorry. I am going to guarantee that. No. I mean, here's the thing. Imagine you run a global shipping company. Hurricanes are getting more severe, just to choose one effect of global warming.

SOFIA: Right. Not great for ships.

HERSHER: Bad for business. So there is already a financial incentive to switch over to something, and hydrogen really is the best bet.

SOFIA: But will one company really make that big of a difference?

HERSHER: Yeah, I think it will. And the analysts I talked to think it will, too, because there just aren't that many big shipping companies in the world. So when one really big company, like Maersk, makes this kind of promise, if they follow through, it could make a really big dent. And it seems possible that if this new ferry and other prototypes can prove that this is possible, the way they'll do it is using hydrogen.


SOFIA: Thanks to THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY for hosting this episode of Short Wave. If you like what you just heard, please subscribe and check your feed for new episodes every weekday.

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