Change is gonna come: policy redefines the global fleet

30 December 2019
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I saw three ships, three kings… three titans of legislation, now in force appearing. That’s some epiphany dawning with the new decade.

Whilst many ship operators will be prepared for low sulphur fuel as IMO 2020 comes into force, there will be many others who aren’t.

Legislation is one thing, enforcement is quite another when left to individual states. Countries such as South Africa, Jamaica and much of the Caribbean lack domestic laws, whilst the UAE reportedly lacks any intention of robust enforcement from 1 January.

Meanwhile, the EU sets out an over-arching climate policy that aims to set stiffer limits, rules and subsidies across industries, including energy, construction, automobile, aviation …and maritime.

European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen landed her job on a tide of parliamentary endorsement for her Green Deal but, as with every fork in the road over climate change, she faces the political fallout and entrenched lobbying from member states and business leaders.

Does maritime get behind airlines as they resist all attempts to make them pay the bill for a cleaner planet? Or does maritime sail towards solutions…

The EU move is no surprise, with society as a whole on a trajectory to sustainability. But then shipping needed this curve ball about as much as a crystal one. Many owners and operators have long opposed the EU Emissions Trading System which caps emission allowances, unless a company buys a permit.

Then there is the UK’s exit from the EU. The UK has already legislated for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, much to the agitation of Extinction Rebellion campaigners who brought London to gridlock, demanding this be achieved decades earlier.

We can expect Britain to lead on environmental standards, and now Brussels also. In what’s been tagged a ‘complete transformation’ of the European economy, European Commission policy priorities are to move from growth towards sustainability.

Where there’s a will, there’s a budget.

It takes more than a consensus of rationale to listen to pioneering spirits as technologies are reimagined, accelerated and mainstreamed. Where the science allows, the will-power must follow.

Of course, facing up to fuel challenges is no epiphany. We are at one juncture of the energy story in its continuum whilst juxtaposed with its dichotomy. Maritime moves most of our stuff around the globe – some 90% of all cargo freight (including people) – accounting for 2.3 per cent of all global emissions annually. That’s about 940 million tonnes of CO2.

But it’s about the story of stuff too. We want it …growth says we need it. Maritime moves it. Now shipping is feeling the squeeze as the climate emergency drives the sector to catch up.

Some 3,000 vessels are thought to have been fitted with engine exhaust scrubbers, to get around the IMO 0.5 per cent limit and continue using high sulphur fuel. Installation can cost up to $6 million, but ship operators may make significant savings when comparisons are made with IMO 2020-compliant fuel.

Then you read of a floating storage vessel (FSO) off Yemen that’s leaking oil into the Red Sea. Dubbed a ‘floating bomb’ by environmentalists, the aged 407,000-dwt Safer is anchored off Ras Isa, leaking 1.2 million barrels of crude. Both Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels claim ownership.

This just one grim example of a vessel full of the black stuff – that the world economy, like it or not, still spins on.

We shouldn’t be surprised that after decades of will they or won’t they… Saudi Aramco is at last floated as the world’s largest listed company.

Change is competing with continuity – and winning.

With this age of reinvention in tune, or not, with the mantra of Greta Thunberg, what is crystal clear is the momentum. There is a sea-change to accept the challenge of the climate crisis and to innovate and engineer our way through massive transition. Within the next 30 years that should be doable.

Shipping plays a strategic long game pegged to market forces. Ships are generational with a life-span of up to 30 years; propulsion and auxiliary power sources must go the distance. Batteries play a part, but fuels that can be upscaled, such as hydrogen and ammonia, must also be solutions for range.

Political and market tensions have always dictated. But we overcame industrial inertia for technical revolution before.

If humanity fails to do this net-zero carbon thing, we can say goodbye to more than stuff: those born by the river, those islands, coastal communities… Bangladesh, Maldives …New York and London.

We can meet the challenge to build a global sustainable fleet. Or we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Jonathan Spencer

Crisis Response Manager

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