The European Green Deal (EGD) calls for a transition towards a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are gradually phased out by 2050. In the trajectory towards EU climate neutrality, the Commission aims to reduce net GHG emissions by at least 55% by 2030. This long-term strategy sets out a comprehensive package of measures ranging from ambitious GHG emission reductions, to cutting-edge research and innovation for the development of low carbon technologies, to the preservation of Europe’s natural environment.
In this context, a sustainable Blue Economy offers many solutions to achieve the EGD objectives. However, this requires current activities, technologies and processes to reduce their carbon footprint. In contrast,climate neutral activities and technologies need to play a central role in the EU Blue Economy.
The transition from high-carbon to low-carbon energy sources is crucial for the sustainable development of a blue economy. Producing clean, renewable energy is critical to this worldwide energy transition.
Since the EU – including its outlying regions – has the world’s largest maritime territory, offshore wind energy will be a significant part of this change, along with energy from waves, tides, salinity gradient, and biomass (algae). Marine renewables are expected to become one of the main sources of energy, as highlighted in the EU Renewable Energy Directive.
The EGD calls for a 90% reduction in GHG from all modes of transport, which are responsible for almost a quarter of Europe's GHG, and this includes several important sectors of the EU Blue Economy, such as Maritime transport.
Maritime transport (shipping) is the most carbon-efficient mode of transportation, with the lowest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per distance and weight carried. Indeed, it produces less exhaust gas emissions - including nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide - for each tonne transported per kilometre than air or road transport.
However, shipping contributes to GHG emissions because of the significant volumes involved, representing around 13% of the overall EU GHG from the transport sector. Maritime transport carried out 74% of the goods traded to and from the EU in 2021. Ships registered under the flag of an EU Member State represent 16.2% of the total world fleet measured in dead weight tonnage (DWT). EU passenger ships can carry up to 1.3 million passengers, representing 40% of the world's passenger transport capacity.
Because of its efficiency, the share of maritime transport compared to other transport modes continues to increase, as well as the total volume transported. Hence, the maritime transport sector is not decreasing its emissions at the desired pace. Given the importance of maritime transport and the prospects of increased maritime transportation, it is indispensable that the industry increases efforts to reduce its environmental impact.
GHG emissions from the EU maritime transport sector (blue line) declined until 2014 and had an increasing trend until 2018, falling again. GHG emissions from the EU maritime transport sector have decreased by 5% between 2009 and 2020. Instead, the GHG emissions divided by turnover, as a proxy of business activity, went up marginally until 2016 and had been slightly decreasing since then, for a 21% drop during the same period. This shows that the GHG emissions of the EU Maritime transport sector increased but less than the surge in turnover (i.e., business activity).
Due to the expected growth of the world economy and associated transport demand from world trade, GHG emissions from shipping could grow if measures were not implemented, making it paramount for the industry to continue improving the energy efficiency of ships and to shift to alternative fuels.
These emissions are projected to increase from 90% to 130% of emissions in 2008. Therefore, more effort is required from the maritime transportation industry to lessen its environmental impact.
Maritime transport faces huge decarbonisation challenges in the next decades due to current lack of market-ready zero-emission technologies, long development timeframes and life cycles of vessels. The 2020 Communication on a Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy aims to bring the first zero-emission vessels to the market by 2030. It incentivises the deployment of renewable and low-carbon fuels (using hydrogen, for example) and feeding onshore power supply with renewable energy. Technologies to produce zero-emission fuels and vessels, are primarily available but, in most instances not market ready. The early years of this transition are challenged by the existence of several alternative fuel options and a wide gap, in terms of cost, with the fossil fuels used today. Hence, the smooth deployment of these energy efficient technologies will depend to a large extent on several factors, such as costs, availability, maturity, reliability and level of environmental sustainability. The FuelEU Maritime initiative as well as the Commission proposals for a regulation on Alternative Fuels Infrastructure, a Renewable Energy Directive and the extension of the Emission Trading System to shipping, all part of the EU’s Fit for 55 package, will contribute to increase the availability and uptake of alternative and clean maritime fuels and to develop market-ready zero-emission technologies.
The successful reduction of emissions from the Maritime transport sector requires not only appropriate regulatory and non-regulatory incentives, R&I and an investment-friendly environment for the sector but also other technical considerations. Innovative engineering solutions, for example, are needed to consider how ships are fuelled, designed and built, as well as how they interact with ports while keeping the EU Maritime transport sector competitive.
The EU is working on the revision of its climate, energy and transport-related legislation under the so-called 'Fit for 55 package' in order to align current laws with the 2030 and 2050 ambitions.
The package includes initiatives in multiple sectors, including plans to increase the uptake of greener fuels in the maritime sector, boost renewable energy, promote more sustainable and less emitting transport, revise energy taxation, and support the most affected citizens and businesses.
Several strategies of relevance to maritime transport will contribute towards reaching these significant goals. These include The FuelEU Maritime initiative, which intends to boost the use of environmentally friendly alternative fuels in ships and within European ports. In maritime transportation, the plan accommodates all renewable and low-carbon fuels such as; liquid biofuels, e-liquids, decarbonised gas (including bio-LNG and e-gas), hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels (including methanol and ammonia), as well as electricity.
The process of decarbonisation also implies the necessary energy transition in the EU fishing fleet. Despite some progress in reducing emissions from shipping and fishing vessels, this reduction may not be considered enough in relation to the goals of the Paris Agreement.
On 21 February 2023, the Commission presented a Communication on the Energy Transition of the EU fisheries and aquaculture sector to support the sector to become more economically resilient to high energy prices and, at the same time, reduce its carbon footprint. The main objectives of the measures are to promote the use of cleaner energy sources,reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and lower the sector's impact on marine ecosystems. The communication was included in the Fisheries and Aquaculture package, which included four communications.
Indeed, as a result of the military invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, fuel prices increased sharply impacting the EU fishing sector and jeopardizing its economic profitability. The economic impact of high fuel prices on the EU fishing fleet has been assessed in this publication and through an interactive dashboard
The EU fishing fleet consumed 1.9 billion litres of fuel to land 5 million tonnes of fish valued at 5.8 billion at the first sale in 2020. This fuel consumption leads to the emission of roughly 5.2 million tonnes of CO2. Between 2009 and 2020, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions decreased by 18%, while fish landings in weight decreased by 6%, despite increasing by 2% in value.
The EU fleet has become more fuel efficient over the years but has shown less efficiency in recent years, mainly due to rising fuel prices. Fuel efficiency is essentially a result of fuel prices. Fuel price increases lead to higher fuel costs, worsening efficiency. The lower the percentage, the more fuel efficient the vessel (i.e., less income is used to cover fuel costs). Fuel costs as a proportion of income were estimated at 13% in 2020, reaching the 2016 level, the lowest historical level, and worsened after 2021.
The CO2 emissions per kg of fish show a decreasing trend over time, a 13% decrease between 2009 and 2020. This could be partly explained by the better status of some key fish stocks as well as the aim of the sector to reduce fuel consumption. The estimated increase for 2021 and 2022 should be taken with caution since these are based on forecasts. In 2020, the EU fishing fleet directly emitted 1.27 kg of CO2 to land a kg of fish. These emissions vary significantly by fishing method and species targeted, with pelagic trawling to catch small pelagics having the lowest emissions. Typically, seafood has, on average, a lower carbon footprint than animal production on land.
It has been recently estimated that globally on average, 3.7 kg CO2 eq. are emitted per kg of edible fish when accounting for the whole life cycle (including distribution, processing and commercialisation). This study confirms that small pelagics have the lowest emissions, which are lower than chicken, pork and beef. Groundfish have a similar impact to chicken (the least impactful of the animal products), large pelagics have more impact than chicken but less than pork, and shrimps have more impact than pork but less than beef.
Similarly, for the EU, estimations point to emissions of 4.6 kg CO2 eq. per kg of cod and 9.0 kg CO2 eq. per kg of shrimp for the whole life cycle, with the majority of the emissions generated during the production process (i.e. fishing activity).
The life cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from aquaculture products considers several stages: 1) production, processing and transport of the feed; 2) rearing of finfish, shellfish and crustaceans and 3) processing and transport of the final product. The available studies provide heterogeneous data regarding the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to the different types of seafood and agri-food products due to the methodologies used and the scope of each study.
However, these studies generally provide a comparable ranking between the different types of products: lower impact for shellfish compared to finfish (due to the absence of feed) and lower impact of most of the finfish compared to meat products (even if some finfish may range at the same level of pork and chicken products in some studies), one of the highest impacts in terms of GHG being for beef meat. As an illustration, the following figure provides a comparison of the emissions for the main types of farming in Ireland; shellfish production emits less than 1 kg of CO2 eq. / kg of product, while salmon and other finfish emit between 3.9 and 4.5 kg of CO2 eq. / kg of product. References for meat products are higher: 7.2 kg of CO2 eq. / kg of product for pig meat, 6.1 kg of CO2 eq. / kg of product for poultry meat and 21 kg of CO2 eq. / kg of product for beef meat.
Based on these emission levels, it is possible to figure out solutions to reduce GHG emissions from aquaculture. The main leverages identified are:
• increasing energy efficiency in order to reduce the energy use on-site;
• shifting to renewable energy sources from diesel, which currently accounts for a significant share of the energy used on-site for several types of farming, such as bivalves, marine fish, salmonids and cyprinids;
• improving the feed conversion ratio (with the evolution of the ratio composition and the animal genetics);
• improving the interaction with surrounding habitats to enhance blue carbon sequestration (for bivalves and seaweed mariculture) ;
• implementing polyculture to reduce the GHG releases from bivalve farming and reduce eutrophication around fed finfish farms (with the impact of blue carbon habitats). This could be achieved through: i) co-farming of bivalves and seaweed and ii) co-farming of finfish and seaweed or bivalves.