We don't have time to reinvent the wheel – why we should use existing LCA tools in the maritime industry

Published — April 14, 2023

Insights from Harshil Desai

Harshil Desai
LCA Analyst
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A global lifecycle analysis methodology for calculating emissions from alternative fuels will be essential for the maritime industry in the coming decades. However, a methodology alone is not enough. Applying life cycle assessment (LCA) also requires modeling tools capable of executing our chosen methodology and datasets to support those tools. The marine industry is facing a choice: should we use existing LCA tools or create our own that will be specific to the maritime industry? We spoke to Harshil Desai, our LCA Analyst, to find out more.

Most of the climate impact of fossil fuels originates from greenhouse gases produced when they are combusted onboard ships (“tank-to-wake” emissions). However, as we transition to alternative fuels, the climate burden will move upstream to feedstocks and fuel production. As a result, we need a way to understand and estimate the environmental impacts of alternative fuels that considers far more than just onboard emissions.

Lifecycle assessment is a method for holistically estimating the potential environmental impacts of products, including fuels by including all activities from the supply chain of products. It is already used across the transport industry. LCA is a detailed and iterative process, making it well suited to "due care" analyses by regulators monitoring the effects of decarbonization legislation and fuel producers who need to gather evidence that their fuels do not create any unintended environmental impacts. In the coming decades, we expect LCA to play an essential role in regulating and monitoring the impacts of transitioning to alternative fuels in the transport sector, including the maritime sector. There have already been discussions at the IMO (International Maritime Organization) about developing fuel lifecycle methodologies to support future decarbonization policy and regulation.

Although there is an ISO standard at the heart of LCA that provides general principles for LCA (ISO 14040 and 14044), the wider LCA landscape is very complex, with varying methodologies across different regions and sectors. Our recent paper, 'Creating a Global Fuel Lifecycle Methodology: A qualitative assessment of existing methodologies and opportunities for the future,' reviewed current LCA methodologies used in the transport sector in more detail. We found that there are large differences between how emissions are calculated in different methodologies, which is creating uncertainty about greenhouse gas emission savings from alternative fuels and delaying critical decision-making,

A globally accepted protocol for determining the climate impact of alternative fuels in the maritime industry should increase certainty and transparency around the impacts of fuels, enabling decision-making. "At the Center, we are developing a global lifecycle methodology we hope will be accepted and used across the maritime industry, allowing all regions and fuels to be compared and regulated on the same level," says Harshil, our LCA analyst who has spent the past few months focusing on LCA tools to support a global methodology.

"LCA relies on both a methodology, tools, and datasets to execute that methodology," he explains. "LCA methodologies define the theoretical scope of LCA calculations and the assumptions behind those calculations. But tools allow us to implement our system boundaries and assumptions to calculate emissions. There are two different tools used in LCA. One is a modeling tool, like the NavigaTE tool we use here at the Center. And the other is an emissions database that provides data to support the model. Using a centralized model and database to calculate emissions across the maritime industry will increase certainty, robustness, transparency, and comparability. However, there has been some debate about which life cycle tools the industry should adopt."

How LCA methodology and tools support LCA analysis.

While there are existing tools for calculating fuel emissions, we need tools specific to fuels used in the maritime industry that can adapt to the LCA methodology that the industry chooses to use, and are globally applicable rather than specific to a particular region. "We needed to understand whether the maritime industry could adopt LCA tools that are already in use and modify them to our needs, or if we need to create our own, new tools," says Harshil, who has analyzed the most promising existing tools and comped them with what we could achieve if we built our own.

Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy in Technologies (GREET) is a standard model used to simulate transportation fuels in the US that could be adapted for use in the maritime industry. "A great thing about GREET is that it's free and publicly available. Anyone can download it online. It's available in Excel and programming formats, so anyone can input their data and check their emissions. However, a drawback of GREET is that it is designed primarily for the US transport system than global maritime needs. For example, the GREET model reflects that the transport sector in the US is heavily focused on biofuels. The maritime industry is expected to utilize a wider range of fuels for decarbonization, so GREET would need adapting to include a greater range of fuels before it could be used in the maritime industry. However, there are on-going efforts to develop globalized GREET versions. "

Adopting GREET for the maritime industry will take some time. However, it will be much shorter than building our own model from scratch. GREET has taken nearly 30 years to develop to its current level and has a good reputation as a credible model. "We need LCA tools that we can use to regulate fuels in the maritime industry as soon as possible. We don't have decades to build a tool and earn the reputation that GREET already has," Harshil explains.

GREET has also recently added a maritime module that follows mission innovation guidelines, showing its willingness to engage with the maritime industry. "There's no need to reinvent the wheel here," Harshil points out. "GREET provides an ideal framework to build on when developing a modeling tool for LCA in the maritime industry.

So if we chose to use GREET as our LCA modeling tool, which database tool should we use? "Although GREET has its own databases, they are very region specific, so they aren't suitable for the maritime industry. For example, when GREET models e-fuels, it uses region-specific factors such as emissions from US electricity production, which are very different from emissions from electricity production in other places around the globe," he explains. "We need a bigger database that provides data from all the regions we will need to cover in the maritime industry."

ecoinvent is the most popular candidate for an existing database that could be used for LCA in the maritime industry. "ecoinvent is one of the biggest databases in the world, with more than 19,000 data sets. It's not industry or region-specific, covering most industries and regions. It is very popular and reputable as the data are thoroughly reviewed and checked for consistency before publication, making it very robust," says Harshil. Like GREET, ecoinvent has demonstrated its willingness to collaborate with the maritime industry by recently becoming a knowledge partner at the Center. Again, the central advantage of using econinvent compared with a new database is that it will require far fewer resources and be available in a much shorter time span.

Harshil is very clear about the conclusions from his work. "We should not build new tools because this will require a lot of resources and time. Instead, we should use GREET and ecoinvent because they are very well built, easy to use, and ready to engage with the maritime industry."

"We are already in discussions with both GREET and ecoinvent to discuss the possibility of a future collaboration," he continues. "We think the collaboration between these two tool developers and the maritime industry will be critically important for the success of a global LCA methodology in the maritime industry. As we build a global LCA methodology, they will depend on each other for data, information, and the right way of modeling different technologies and fuels. If the collaboration fails, and we must build our own tools, this will be hugely time-consuming, and we risk delaying the transition."

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