The Environment: Time to Come Clean

‘One of the first conditions of happiness is the link between Man and nature shall not be broken’ – Leo Tolstoy.

By Jaya Prakash

Maritime shipping drives some ninety per cent or more, of global trade. Billions of containers, and liquid and bulk cargo crisscross oceans and national boundaries to ensure global living standards do not fall through the floor!

Still there is a flip side, and a fairly a big one at that!  For, too long and for most of the time, the worrying fear was, and always been if shipping could escape the wrath of the international community. For the very admirable work it has been doing lifting living standards, ports have defiled the air, disrupted, and hurt livelihoods and caused hand wringing of an unimaginable kind.

In a report from Cable News Network (CNN), maritime pollution in Hong Kong is blamed for most sulphur dioxide-related deaths within the region. A report jointly compiled by the Civic Exchange and The University of Science and Technology said Hong Kong had 385 deaths caused by the hazardous chemical, for which shipping is to blame.

And, poor air quality, according to Transport and Environment, a movement that campaigns for zero emissions, cited international shipping as being responsible for nearly 400,000 premature deaths per year worldwide, as well as an annual cost to society of more than USD684billion. Through chemical reactions in the air, SO2 and NOx is converted into fine particles, sulphate, and nitrate aerosols.  In addition to the particles directly emitted by ships such as black carbon, these secondary particles arising from ship pollution increase the health impacts on peoples. Tiny airborne particles are linked to premature deaths. Even so, the particles are small enough to pass through the tissues and enter the blood. They can then trigger inflammations which can eventually cause heart and lung failures. Ship emissions, lo and behold, may also contain carcinogenic particles.

It, therefore, is a very dicey situation. Shipping is not only a boon, but is also a bane at least according to respected news organisations.

Sulphur emissions, undoubtedly, triggers environmental degradation and the science wholly supports it! IMO 2020 has decreed that carriers use less than 0.5% sulphur oxide by mass such as very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) and marine gas oil (MGO).

Since 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has built a global response to climate change and its impacts, with the most recent multilateral response outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

An Arduous Task

Yet, Doubting Thomases notwithstanding, handling, managing, and eradicating emissions are indeed, very arduous tasks. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says one reason for it, is the lack of a global framework for addressing environmental impacts of international shipping, making it difficult for individual countries to take action that would “internalise” the climate change impacts (e.g. by putting in place a carbon tax on bunkers). Another reason, the body adds, arises from the difficulties involved in monitoring and enforcing such actions (for example, a tax on the real SO2, NOx, or noise emissions from each ship).

Emissions control, according to DNV Maritime CEO Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, [is] “the grand challenge of our time.”

“Choosing the right fuel today for operations tomorrow is a daunting task that all owners must face up to,” said Ørbeck-Nilssen. “The business environment is changing in line with the natural one, leading not just to increased regulatory requirements, but also to new cargo-owner and consumer expectations and more rigorous demands from capital investors and institutions.

At the heart of the problem is the toxicity created by fumes from ships. And within an existing problem is the question of what to do, with the sulphur that is found in bunker fuel. It now does appear that without the widespread prevalence of hybrid ship engines capable of allowing ships to switch from high sulphur fuel to low sulphur fuel oil, the problem as we now have, will remain for the foreseeable future.

Using liquefied natural gas (LNG) may be an option. But LNG releases methane into the air, and that is ‘toxic’.

One option, perhaps owing to the lack of hybrid engines, is to retain scrubbers if they are necessary. By being able to remove harmful elements from exhaust gases, scrubbers can for the interim be geared towards reducing sulphur until and when a truly, viable marine fuel alternative can be found.

But as economies slowly crawl back into their usual ‘operating grid’ – Singapore is showing signs of opening – it is a virtual given that demand for marine fuel will soar and indeed perhaps even skyrocket.

Broadly, that would mean making available a whole host of fuel alternatives from fuel cell technology, hydrogen fuel cells, LNG, shore power, or ammonia and hydrogen.

……. Batteries

Though batteries are not in use yet, advances in science and technology may just make that possible. As it stands now batteries are only suitable for short voyages. According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), ferry conversions and offshore support vessels using hybrid propulsions to optimise efficiency and reduce consumption, are already in store. The potential to use batteries is immense. There are already reports that the Japanese may use lithium-ion batteries for some of their craft.  Asahi Tanker said two tankers, slated for service in Tokyo Bay will achieve zero emissions CO2, NOx, SOx, and particulates thereby, dramatically reducing their environmental impact. In addition, their reduced noise and vibration will create a more comfortable work environment for the crewmembers and limit noise pollution in the bay and its surroundings. Adoption of various automated equipment and digital tools including Internet of Things (IoT) will reduce crews’ onboard workload and increase the ship’s operating efficiency.

Picture above from Asahi Tanker’s website shows, for illustrative purposes, a battery-operated tanker.

Still as how ICS warns, large batteries can be expensive thereby posing a financial burden for most owners. And even so, there is the question of the availability of sufficient rare materials to manufacture batteries with necessary power. And adopting pure battery power operations – including more frequent port calls to permit recharging – will require radical adjustments to how ships are operated and careful route management.

Malaysia which does not have battery operated vessels, does however, take its international obligations seriously. Nazery Khalid, an adjunct professor in an email interview said, “The Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has stepped up efforts to curb anti-pollution, illegal and unregulated fishing, illegal ship-to-ship transfer of hazardous cargos and other activities that could be harmful to its marine environment.  Marine Department Malaysia, an agency under the Ministry of Transport, and has also beefed up its capacity to enhance navigation safety in Malaysian waters. In addition, the Department of Environment (DOE), an agency under the Ministry of Environment and Water, regularly monitors air and water pollution, haze, and hotspots.

“Of particular interest to Malaysia is ensuring its coastal zone is free from pollution”, adds Khalid.  The seas, according to him, provide a source of food and livelihood to many Malaysians, while shipping and port operations are crucial facilitators of its trade-dependent economy.  With shipping traffic growing in the seas surrounding Malaysia and with vessel size getting larger, the risk of incidents involving shipping traffic is rising.  Should there be any major incident causing blockade or pollution in the busy shipping lanes bordering its coast, the repercussion to the marine environment and shipping traffic would be severe and Malaysia’s reputation as a maritime hub with good navigation safety would also be dented.

Malaysia has a negligible ship inventory that, according to UNCTADStat, amounts to just a little over 1,700 vessels of all types.  Says a source close to Drewry Maritime Advisors, that with such a small fleet any deleterious environmental impact from Malaysia is negligible!


Still if there is anything worth extrapolating in the new era, it is the direction of alternative marine fuels and the urgent need to combat greenhouse gas emissions.

The key alternatives commonly touted, are ammonia and hydrogen. Charles Haskell, in writing for Lloyd’s Register said that for “the shipping sector to decarbonise and shift away from reliance on fossil fuels, ammonia is looking like an attractive alternative”. 

Yet challenges remain even if the world votes with its feet. Declared Haskell, “It is clear no single fuel will solve all of shipping’s zero carbon needs. In the future, shipowners will equip vessels for the fuel most appropriate to a ship’s type, route and cargo”. 

The case for ammonia is more explicatory, as,  Continues Haskell, “Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. As ammonia contains no carbon it does not emit any CO2 when used to fuel an internal combustion engine. This creates the potential for truly zero carbon propulsion. An additional small quantity of pilot fuel is required for combustion however, which should also be zero carbon. However, what must be considered is that most ammonia today is produced from natural gas and so from a lifecycle perspective it is not zero-carbon, which is something the industry needs to address if ammonia is pursued”.

The single biggest draw for ammonia is its volumetric density making onboard storage economically feasible. And this is over and above, ammonia requiring less cooling, and which can be stored at temperatures of around -33°C.

As well as ammonia being a useful option, there is also no denying of how hydrogen acquits in the grand scheme of competing marine fuel alternatives. Hydrogen is a viable alternative. But the sophisticated cooling equipment makes it an expensive option, though some of the costs of transporting it can be dramatically reduced by manufacturing ammonia from hydrogen at the source.


Safety never escapes scrutiny. Prolonged exposure to anhydrous gases causes caustic burns, as declared by ICS, leading to possible death. Some types of fuel cell stack are incompatible with ammonia, so that even very small quantities of ammonia remaining after reforming into hydrogen could seriously affect performance.

Even as ammonia is not highly inflammable, concentrations in air as low as 0.25% causing fatalities, makes the fuel highly toxic.

Photo:  Valmedia              Picture shows an Anhydrous Ammonia Tank. The risk ammonia poses to human health and life is well documented.

Even as residual and distillate fuel present a reduced risk than ammonia, what is vitally needed, is the building up a safety regime followed by the redesigning of fuel systems to maintain the safety of crew and port staff.

Whilst ships are built to standard configurations in which engines and fuel systems are often in confined spaces on lower decks, highlights Haskell, different requirements of ammonia could alter ship layouts or could even lead to complete redesigns.

Still the challenges do not just simply end there. Handling ammonia onboard ships requires a completely new set of skills and safety procedures coupled with the need to understand the potential negative impacts on human lives, water, and soil in case of a leakage or accidents, and how to mitigate these types of risks. Because shipping has no experience of ammonia as a fuel and given the safety challenges, a rigorous process of risk assessment of fuel handling and propulsion systems is required.


With the large part of the world transfixed on the fuel of choice, just how much of the new narrative rubs on maritime jurisdictions has and will always be, a matter for intense discussion.

Singapore, the world’s veritable maritime power, has the largest known slew of ship management companies. But indigenously owned shipp owning companies are few and far between in Southeast Asia. The city-state excels in port management, offshore business operations – with Keppel being the leading ‘star’ – and is also one of the world’s leading maritime arbitration centres.

Yet given the paucity of native ship owners and the lack of owners stepping forth to partake and shape the narrative on alternative marine fuels has become conspicuous.

For that reason and more, Singapore acquits itself more as a forum for the veritable titans in the world to meet and talk shop.

It is, perhaps, Indonesia that bears the closest scrutiny. The world’s largest archipelago of 17,000 islands, spanning three time zones, has close to 250 yards.  Even so, there are not that many owners as compared to Asian ‘giants’ like Korea, Japan or China. That has been compounded by shipbuilding being highly complex and, as was seen during the 2008 financial crisis, when many owners took to converting container vessels into bulk carriers, amongst others, just to stay afloat. All of these are major considerations in the life cycle of a vessel as would be its age, its class certification seaworthiness and its adherence to decarbonisation moves now underway in the world.

One of the most noteworthy news to break out this year is of Indonesia’s selection for the Tokyo MOU’s WhiteList criteria.  The Tokyo MoU, according to the Jakarta Post, aims to reduce the operation of substandard ships through cooperation with member states. Each ship is required to apply International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labour Organizations standards, including safety, maritime environmental protection, working conditions and living standards.

The new upshot is a boon for Indonesian shipping which for years has laboured under sub substandard levels.  Over at an international plane, it now means greater recognition for Indonesian registered vessels such that they can muster the skills to be ‘on par with world-class ship safety inspection standards’, highlighted the Jakarta Post.

Such a recognition has had been a far cry from times when the average age of Indonesian vessel was 25 years, when single tank hull tankers were still in operation, emission reduction efforts moved slowly and finally, when its OECD risk rating placed the nation at 3 out of 7.

Just before the move to the WhiteList, “Ninety-five percent of ship owners in Indonesia are small with less than 10 ships. Indonesian shipowners can be characterised as operating in cabotage or regional markets. A significant number of the small shipping companies may not have strong parent company.’, said, Jayendu Krishna, director in Drewry Maritime Advisors, during a presentation on the 2nd of September 2021.  And “these”, Krishna adds of the vessels, “may not have strong corporate governance practices.

Not exclusive to Indonesia alone, is how the new era of fuel alternatives may shape up and for owners to factor in cost considerations.  “The cost of alternative marine fuel will dramatically vary depending on how the fuel is produced, energy content, technology used, scale of production etc. Given the wide variation in cost of alternative fuel it is unlikely that shipping industry will be able to absorb high fuel cost. Therefore, it is imperative to have market-based measures to induce the shipowners to switch to alternative fuel”.

That, therefore, places in a nutshell, to where and how the maritime environmental protection begins and ends. If marine fuel prices are too high, there will be industry-wide reluctance to adapt. If it is too low, there will be another kind of reluctance; this time from fuel operators to have the commodity sloshing around! An equilibrium is therefore needed and needed quick, as the jury on that is unfortunately still out.

According to IMO estimates, ships carry some 3 billion tons to 5 billion tons of ballast water globally each year. “The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments, 2004” (Ballast Water Management Convention) was adopted in 2004 with the aim of protecting the marine environment from the transfer of harmful aquatic organisms in ballast water carried by ships. And the BWM Convention entered into force on 8 September 2017.

Ballast water management for ships need to be made in accordance with the following Standards under this Convention.

According to North P&I, there are several treatment systems for ballast water management systems. These include:

  • Filter and ultraviolet: systems filter the particulates and bigger organisms followed by UV disinfection.
  • Filter and electrolysis: systems filter the particulates and the bigger organisms followed by injection of active substances generated from the electrolysis.
  • Filter and chemical injection: systems filter the particulates and the bigger organisms followed by injection of a chemical solution.
  • Ozone: disinfection through injection of O3.

Inert gas and ultrasonic: diffusing inert gas directly into the ballast tank to deoxygenate the water and using ultrasonic shockwaves to treat anaerobic organisms and bacteria.

It is not just the regrowth of marine organisms later going on to become invasive species that is at the heart of the issue. Crew training and delays in retrofit installation are just some of the problems behind the slack to adequately managing ballast water management.

Problems range from operational to testing and more.  Instances have abounded of crew discharging untreated or partially treated ballast water into the environment and that creates problems not just for the ship, but for the port and P&I clubs.  A poorly functioning ballast water management systems is another issue that has been much overlooked.

Testing is something that has cropped up as another issue. It is important for shipowners that they have a functioning Ballast Water Management System. Concrete evidence showing that shipowners are fully apprised is scant.

Training is a vexing issue. Crew are hardly trained and that is a huge contributor to ballast water management control systems in vessels across the world in general and Southeast Asia in particular.


Managing environmental degradation will for the long-haul drive at the heart of almost all maritime concerns in Southeast Asia. Plainly by having biocide onto the metallic paints on ships causes a stir, not to mention the slow adaptation of ammonia, hydrogen as alternative marine fuels. The effects of sediments from ballast water as well as agents for the growth of invasive species are undoubtedly major concerns. Close to 80% of Southeast Asia’s human population live in coastal areas and shipping traffic through the Malacca Straits has been exponential even during the COVID-19 pandemic.  As Research Gate has observed Southeast Asia encompasses approximately 34% of the world’s reefs and between a quarter and a third of the world’s mangroves, as well as the global biodiversity triangle formed by the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, and New Guinea, the need to reduce the impacts of marine pollution in this region is more critical.

With pollutants threatening to be in Southeast Asia, Leo Tolstoy may have to rephrase what the meaning of happiness now is. He probably is not a happy camper.