Biden administration rolls out a blueprint to decarbonize transport

The Biden-Harris Administration has released the U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, an interagency framework of strategies and actions to remove all emissions from the transportation sector by 2050.

Credit: The White House

The document builds upon the memorandum of understanding Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency signed in September 2022, to formalize the country’s commitment to collaboration and coordination to implement a holistic decarbonization strategy.

The blueprint is expected to serve as a guide for future policymaking and research, development, demonstration, and deployment in the public and private sectors to transform how people and goods move throughout the United States.

The document stresses that transitioning to clean options by deploying zero-emission vehicles and fuels for cars, ships and airplanes is expected to drive the majority of emissions reductions. As disclosed, a successful transition will require full life-cycle emissions consideration of fuel solutions to be successful.

“The domestic transportation sector presents an enormous opportunity to drastically reduce emissions that accelerate climate change and reduce harmful pollution,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

“DOE is prepared to implement this Blueprint alongside our partners within the Biden-Harris Administration to ensure all Americans feel the benefits of the clean transportation transition: good-paying manufacturing jobs, better air quality, and lower transportation costs.”

Maritime sector

When it comes to maritime transport, battery/electric power is seen as a solution of limited long-term potential, whereas hydrogen and sustainable liquid fuels have a much larger role to play to decarbonize the sector by 2050.

The transportation sector, which includes all modes of travel through land, air, and sea to move people and goods, accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Maritime activities, including shipping and recreational boating, account for 3% of transportation GHG emissions.

There are approximately 12 million privately owned recreational boats and 38,000 commercial vessels, such as tugboats, containerships, and ferries in the U.S. maritime sector, data from the U.S. Coast Guard shows. These vessels predominantly burn diesel and residual oil, and a small fraction uses liquified natural gas (LNG).

According to EPA estimates, half of U.S. marine vessel carbon emissions are from international shipping (including from fuel purchased in the U.S. for international voyages), roughly 30% is from domestic shipping, and the remaining 20% is from recreational boats. However, accurate accounting of maritime emissions is a very difficult endeavor.

That being said, emissions from multimodal equipment at ports largely contribute to poor air quality and environmental justice issues for millions of people living in near-port communities, many of which often consist of disadvantaged and underserved populations.

The maritime industry is international in scope, with the largest share of GHG emissions originating from international voyages. Therefore, effective decarbonization will require intergovernmental collaboration that aligns with industry and community needs.

During the 2021 Leaders Summit on Climate, Biden pledged to work with countries in the International Maritime Organization to revise the organization’s current decarbonization strategy and adopt a new goal of zero emissions (on a life-cycle basis) from the sector by 2050.

This would up the ante for the IMO, which has set out to cut CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and at least halve its emissions by 2050, compared with 2008 levels.

The targets have been deemed rather unambitious by many progressive governments. However, achieving even these objectives will pose a major challenge for the shipping industry as it looks for ways of financing its transition and defining the path toward decarbonization.

Specifically, choosing the right technologies and developing alternative net-zero fuels for the maritime industry accompanied by the relevant infrastructure is expected to be a gargantuan task.

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According to the blueprint, priority actions and levers to decarbonize the maritime sector include:

1. Research and innovation on viable alternative fuels and new technologies to determine the most promising paths to decarbonizing the maritime sector.

The most promising fuels and technologies that can support maritime decarbonization at the moment include sustainable liquid and gaseous fuels (biofuels, ammonia, hydrogen, and methanol), followed by electric powertrains and batteries that can be used to augment power on certain ships, especially smaller boats.

Further down the line, these include cold ironing, energy efficiency and hybridization, exhaust treatment, and carbon capture as well as the implementation of renewable energy from solar, wind, and nuclear power for onboard use to provide supplemental propulsion or auxiliary electrical power generation to offset fuel consumption.

2. International and domestic stakeholder engagement to develop and implement effective decarbonization strategies and regulations.

The document voices the need for coordination between the federal government and key outside stakeholders, such as vessel owner/ operators, ports, terminal operators, and energy providers.

“Given the international nature of the maritime sector, it is essential to build well-functioning domestic and international stakeholder collaborations to better understand industry challenges and needs and to enable the investments necessary to transition to low-carbon maritime operations,” the blueprint reads.

The U.S. government is engaging with international stakeholders through DOT’s Maritime Administration, which collaborates with the IMO and the Quad Shipping Task Force, and through the government’s participation in the Clydebank Declaration, DOE is co-leading the Mission Innovation Zero-Emission Shipping Mission, which aims to transition at least 5% of the global deepsea fleet to zero-emission fuels and ensure that at least 10 ports on three continents can supply zero-emission fuels by 2030.

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3. Infrastructure investments and improved design and planning in clean technologies and fuels for maritime applications funded through new and existing federal programs.

Finally, to support all these activities resources are necessary which can be provided through adequate regulatory frameworks and policies.

For example, the Inflation Reduction Act allocates funding for ports to develop climate action plans and purchase zero-emission equipment. Similarly, the Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP) offers grants for port and terminal infrastructure improvements REF.

The blueprint will be followed by more detailed decarbonization action plans, to be developed and implemented by the said agencies in cooperation with governments, the private sector, and global partners.