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Cargill’s head of ocean transport has called on the shipping industry to give wind power a chance in its efforts to decarbonise, as one of the world’s largest marine freight operators prepares to test the use of sails on a midsized vessel.
Jan Dieleman, president of the US agricultural trader’s shipping business, said some shipowners were too sceptical of proposals to propel large cargo vessels using wind, hundreds of years after sailors started using engines instead of sails to power ships.
He added that wind power was “underestimated”.
“We have an industry that has been focusing solely on the zero-carbon fuels for a long time,” he said. “Some people are sceptical [of sails] from a technical point of view and they feel very strongly that you shouldn’t alter their ship. [Other shipowners] don’t want to take all the risk [of investing without support from their customers].”
Cargill has had a previous foray into wind ship propulsion. In 2011, it announced an agreement to install a giant sail on the Aghia Marina cargo ship, in partnership with German company SkySails. In a 2015 update, Cargill said its project with SkySails had “encountered obstacles”.
Dieleman’s comments come amid a fractious debate between countries over how to decarbonise the international shipping industry, which carries up to 90 per cent of global trade but remains almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. The industry faces growing pressure from regulators as well as customers such as Amazon, Unilever and Ikea, who have pledged to use only zero-emission ships by 2040.
Shipping groups investing in decarbonisation, however, are divided on the best solutions. Companies are betting on a range of fuels including methanol and ammonia, as well as giant kites that can use wind to propel ships, despite concerns over whether alternative fuels will be affordable or available at scale.
Dieleman spoke to the Financial Times as Cargill launched a ship, chartered by the agriculture group and owned by Japan’s Mitsubishi, which it said has been retrofitted with two 37.5 metre-high sails. Dieleman said the Pyxis Ocean bulk carrier, which can carry as much as 81,000 tonnes of cargo according to data provider MarineTraffic, is likely to transport corn from Brazil to Denmark on its first shipment.
But he admitted that Cargill, which itself has been criticised for driving deforestation and climate change, could not take on all the risk for the shipping industry. He added the trading house may struggle to profit from its initial investment in the wind-powered vessel.
Danish company Maersk, the world’s second-largest container shipping group, previously sold a vessel after analysis found that installing sails on the ship had only led to an 8 per cent drop in fuel consumption in a year.
“Are we going to get our money back on this one? I don’t think so . . . It’s a proof of concept,” Dieleman said, declining to reveal how much Cargill had invested. But he said that low-carbon alternatives such as green methanol or ammonia currently cost up to four times as much as fossil fuels, meaning wind power could be used alongside green fuels to save money if it proves successful.
Governments have also supported bringing back wind power. Last year, six countries including France and Spain submitted a paper to the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO), stating wind propulsion systems were “ready, sufficiently mature and available” to help reduce emissions.
Climate experts also agree that wind could play a role in decarbonising shipping, but add that its role is limited in an era when shipowners use increasingly large vessels to serve customers who expect rapid and reliable shipments.
Tristan Smith, a shipping and energy researcher at University College London, said using sails was “generally viable” but less practical on container ships, which have less deck space, or on routes where wind is less favourable. Environmentalists have also said that stronger regulatory incentives are needed for shipping groups to invest in green technology.
In July, diplomats at the IMO agreed on a target for shipping to hit net zero emissions “by or around” 2050. The outcome, which followed lobbying against stronger goals by countries including China, was criticised for offering the industry too much leeway to delay decarbonisation.
Cargill has a target to reduce emissions in its supply chain by 30 per cent by 2030. Dieleman said wind power was just one piece of the puzzle to achieve that goal.
“There are factors you can control and factors you can’t,” he said. “We need things like biofuels to be deployed . . . If the industry’s not going to do anything different than today, we’re just not going to get there.”