I’ve attended several conferences so far this year that address issues around ‘sustainable’ shipping. Before I go any further, it might be a good idea to define sustainability. I suppose it relates to three areas: the design of the ship; propulsion systems and emissions; and waste products from the ship including the ship as a waste product itself.
Beyond our own industry groups like BIMCO, Intercargo, Intertanko, etc., there are of course a number of NGOs focused on this issue, such as the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, the Clean Shipping Initiative, the Clean Shipping Alliance 2020, the Carbon War Room, the Ship Recycling Transparency Initiative, the Clean Shipping Coalition and its members: AirClim, Bellona, Carbon Market Watch, Clean Air Task Force, Stichting de Noordzee, Environmental Investigation Agency, Nabu, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy, Seas At Risk, and Transport & Environment. There are probably more and I apologise for omitting them.
Progress is too slow for the policy enthusiasts but ships are designed to last 25 years (apart from Panamax containerships, and VLCCs, and Capesizes, but anyway) so the climate friendly technology can’t be updated quickly unless we start building ships to last 10 years (high tensile steel anyone? No thanks? Thought so). The global cargo ship fleet continues to grow at about three per cent per year – which means it will be double in 25 years. Changes are going to have to be made to ship designs rather than retrofits, if the 2050 Carbon neutral goals are to be met. Efforts to accelerate the agenda, like Marpol Annex VI, can lead to confusion and potentially dangerous events like thermal shock to engines when they switch from fuel oil to a distillate. That isn’t to say they are unworthy, just that it’s hard to get global compliance in such a diverse fleet.
Still, a number of initiatives are making progress, whether voluntary by convention or imposed by law (and the two are becoming dangerously conflated, in my opinion). These include, but are not limited to:
The IMO sulphur regs
Long stroke engines
Energy Efficiency Design Index
Mewis Ducts, Rudder Bulbs, Low Friction Coatings, Aerodynamic Superstructures, Flettner Rotors
Next generation fuels – LNG, biofuels, electricity, hydrogen
Exhaust gas recirculation for NOx removal
Telematics for optimisation – engines, voyages, fleet utilisation
Telematics for physical risk reduction
Ballast Water Management
Inventory of Hazardous Materials
Onshore Power Supply for ships in port
And efforts are being applied not just to shipping but to a wider definition of ocean industries including offshore renewables, deep sea mining and fishing. Furthermore beyond the technological and engineering aspects, sustainability is also about corporate best practice in HR, health and safety, training, labour conditions, diversity and inclusion. There’s no single magic bullet to get us where the policy idealists want shipping to be, but shipping should get at least some credit for trying.
Talking of magic bullets, the news overnight from the Middle East was troubling. According to sources in the UAE, two Saudi Arabian crude oil tankers were sabotaged in waters in the Gulf of Oman. Nobody was hurt and no oil was spilled. Few details have emerged but Saudi and UAE government press agencies say that there had been "significant damage to the structures of the two vessels." I haven’t seen any images, which seems unusual in today’s climate of hyper-immediate media. According toCNN, “pro Iranian TV and in Iran” was reporting seven burning oil tankers in the port of Fujairah. I can’t find the TV report that they mention, and the UAE has not corroborated these reports.
Of course, the US has been waving its hardware in Iran’s face recently and briefed last week about increased but unidentified Iranian threats to US interests in the region. If the US is looking for a good reason to attack Iran, blaming it for sabotage on Saudi-owned oil tankers is a doozy. But I’d like to see the evidence, because frankly the US has form on this sort of thing. I’m thinking about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents on 2 and 4 August 1964 that kicked off US involvement in the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense at the time, later admitted that the second attack “didn’t happen.” But confusion and chaos at the time led to ten years of pain for everyone involved.
The Take Away
Sustainable shipping initiatives are improving the industry’s image as a global citizen and are making a real difference to the lives of seafarers and the millions of people who live near ports and busy shipping lanes. Think for instance of the steady reduction of oil spills, which are now a very rare occurrence due to accidents or bad navigation. That leaves violence against a vessel as the main likely cause of oil spills. Let’s hope that events in the Middle East don’t escalate to that level. Thank goodness that in Washington DC some very clear minds and level heads are in control of events.