Infrared images show unburned methane - a potent greenhouse gas - being released from supposedly ‘green’ ships in a damning new investigation by Transport & Environment (T&E).
T&E recorded footage on a clear November day at the port of Rotterdam using a state of the art infrared camera, with a special filter to detect hydrocarbon gases.
Liquified natural gas (LNG), the fuel used to power the ships, is typically 90 per cent methane. Any unburnt fuel that slips through the engine will also be primarily composed of this climate warming gas and so is visible through the camera’s filter.
T&E was able to clearly observe significant methane emissions from two vessels. The first of these was an LNG-powered container ship, the ‘Louvre’, owned by French company CMA-CGM.
According to a peer review carried out by TCHD Consulting, an optical gas imaging consultancy, the images from the Louvre are evidence of intense uncombusted hydrocarbon emissions. These can be seen being released from the three exhaust vents into the atmosphere above the ship and outside the frame of the video.
The second LNG-powered ship that T&E was able to track was the ‘Eco-Delta', a dredger used to clear shipping lanes by pulling up sand from the sea bed.
Again, uncombusted and partially combusted emissions were documented, with methane being released from two hot exhaust stacks on the front of the ship.
What is methane slipping and why is it a problem?
“As [a ship] burns gas, a part of it actually slips from the ship and goes right into the atmosphere,” explains Delphine Gozillon, sustainable shipping officer at T&E.
The images show heat and gas emissions from the exhaust stack of ship engines with a bright light indicating a heat source. As the plume moves away from the heated exhaust stack, uncombusted hydrocarbon emissions can be seen.
Leaks and slips occur throughout the natural gas supply chain. The use of fossil LNG as a maritime fuel is particularly problematic because slips occur from ship engines.
According to data from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), it has been estimated that 0.2 per cent to over 3 per cent of fossil gas slips from the combustion process and is released directly into the atmosphere.
About 80 per cent of LNG is now being burned in an engine with worse total greenhouse gas emissions than traditional engines running on dirty fuel oil. Emission plumes that go up in the sky and remain there for a long time are an indication of this.
What is the alternative to LNG?
CMA-CGM is investing heavily in LNG and their website claims, “LNG is the best solution currently available to reduce the environmental impact of shipping.” Though this isn’t necessarily true.
Shipowners commissioned more gas-fuelled vessels in 2021 than in the four previous years combined. They are being promoted as a clean alternative to traditional fuels.
“The ships may be painted green, but, beneath the surface, the truth is that most LNG ships on the market today are more damaging for the climate than the fossil ships they’re supposed to replace,” says Gozillon.
The fossil gas industry continues to lobby for LNG as a green shipping solution with their own data showing low methane slippage. T&E says it is increasingly looking like a ‘methane-gate’.
Last year, the EU proposed carbon intensity targets for marine fuels which would force shipowners to move away from residual fuel oil, the most widely used shipping fuel today.
However, T&E has warned that without sustainability safeguards this will simply lock in LNG as the cheapest alternative.
“We’re going to switch from one fossil fuel, fuel oil, to another fossil, natural gas,” Gozillon adds.
Recent T&E analysis shows that over two-thirds of new ships could be powered with LNG from 2025. This would raise the share of fossil LNG from an estimated 6 per cent today to over one-fifth of all marine fuels in Europe by 2030, locking in fossil fuel use into the 2040s.
“We cannot afford to put more methane into the atmosphere. Our investigation is just a small sample, but it should act as a warning to policymakers,” Gozillon explains.
“In promoting LNG, it is betting on the wrong horse. We should be focusing on genuinely green hydrogen-based solutions instead.”
Watch the video above to see the infrared, methane-hunting cameras in action.