A good friend and regular reader sent me a link this from The Huffington Post about the failure of shipping to address climate change. Eloquently calledHow The Shipping Industry Bullied Its Way Out Of Doing Anything To Fight Climate Change, it was a classic case of modern knee-jerk online journalism.


It starts rather confusingly by tying the water receding from Bahamian beaches following Hurricane Irma with the Bahamian governments’ decision to sign an IMO proposal to push back the deadline for beginning to reduce pollution.By that time, parts of the Bahamas could be uninhabitable as seas rise and destructive storms become the norm.


Hold on, I thought water was receding and now it’s rising? I’m not arguing with science, just syntax, but please make your mind up.


So what is this proposal? Well it’s one by Panama and Saudi Arabia to reconsider IMO strategy on emissions. They propose that the IMO’s vision should be to:


…reduce in the short term greenhouse gas emissions from ships to the lowest level possible by strengthening the implementation of the measures under development, and thereby contribute to reducing the vulnerability of climate change, serving the needs of the world through maritime transport with the usual effectiveness.

Also, to achieve in the long term total reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of the maritime sector with the development of efficient technology and thus contribute to the construction of a clean and resilient future.


Fair enough, and one thatHuffPostshould agree with? Apparently not:


Emissions from the oil-burning freighters that ferry cargo and fuel around the globe are expected to soar from 3 percent of global emissions to 17 percent by mid-century as global trade increases and ships cruise at higher speeds.


I accept, and hope, global trade will increase but who says ships will be faster? And who says that global emissions will be 17% of global emissions? The EU parliament apparently, if shipping is left unregulated. Their report says:


if action to combat climate change is further postponed, their CO2 emission shares in global CO2 emissions may rise substantially to … 17 % for maritime transport by 2050


The key word here is may may run a 3 hour marathon if I get my act together, I may also die of a heroin overdose if I start taking the drug. Such a small word, so many consequences.


HuffPostinsists that although every major international agreement has signed up to reducing emissions the IMO refuses to do so. I guess they mean CO2 emissions, and I guess they are ignoring EEDI, but their real beef is with the IMO which they say has been taken hostage by industry trade groups. They cite a report from “watchdog” InfluenceMap, which says that the IMO has been able to stay out of the UN Paris Agreement “through corporate capture”, through payinguntold sums … lobbying the IMO each year.


This is not the shipping world I know, one where the market is about to change irrevocably due to a whole series of environmental regulations including but not limited to Ballast Water System Management, Nitrous Oxide and Sulphur Dioxide, which have to be borne by shipowners; there are no subsidies available for international shipping. According to theHuffPost, the shipping industry has coerced small nations under their control to do their bidding:


In the early 1980s, the shipping industry began transitioning to the sort of offshore-haven model many financial companies now use to avoid taxes. The owners register their ships under the flags of nations that demand little or no tax. It’s called a flag of convenience.


The early 80s? You have to go back at least to the 1920s and prohibition in the USA to see flags of convenience first coming in, giving US citizens the convenience to drink outside US territorial waters. Even earlier than that Greek owners were flying flags of competing empires before the Greek state actually existed.


“Often these registry figures feel as if they have the right to direct state policy of these countries they somehow represent, when really they are just corporate figures in the shipping industry,” Ben Youriev, a policy analyst at the InfluenceMap, told HuffPost.


InfluenceMap’s report proclaims:


This research found that at the most recent IMO environmental committee meeting 31% of nations were represented in part by direct business interests. The IMO appears the only UN agency to allow such extensive corporate representation in the policy making process.


It doesn’t say of course that the Flag Authorities of these countries are privatised anyway, and usually based in the US. Are you telling me UNCTAD, doesn’t by definition, represent corporate interests? Anyway, InfluenceMap goes on to say:


The shipping industry is highly fragmented with most shipping operators privately owned, with a particularly large concentration domiciled in Greece. The individual companies are largely silent on climate risk and their positions on climate regulation. They prefer to allow their IMO-focused lobbying to be done by the powerful International Chamber of Shipping, BIMCO and World Shipping Council international trade associations, all of whom oppose any binding greenhouse gas regulation in the sector.


There is of course one exception. Guess who?


The key exception to this at the single-company level is the largest container firm AP MollerMaersk, which transparently discloses on its climate policy positions, appearing to support ambitious action on climate.


I suppose it is useless to point out at this stage that AP MollerMaersk havenotopted to use LNG on their larger container vessels, preferring to stick with low sulphur heavy fuel oil, which everyone else will be using by 2020 anyway. But Maersk have great PR, something individual, highly fragmented, small Greek companies don’t.


Ok enough complaining. The main argument of bothHuffPostand InfluenceMap is that owners have captured the IMO by using various organisations to lobby their representatives. This gives the impression that “deep-pocketed” shipowners have no desire to improve emissions from their industry in order to protect the stuff in their deep pockets. There is probably some truth in that. Panama and Saudi Arabia, according toHuffPost, submitted their proposal


…to temper the ambitions of any policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the shipping industry forms “the backbone of international trade for the bulk transportation of raw materials, and for the import and export of food and manufactured goods.”


No. This is just bad reporting, because their proposal to the IMO also said that


total reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is necessarily that long-term portion of the vision that can be achieved in a longer period with the development of mechanisms and technologies, which are not available, or not available in sufficient quantities to supply the sector as a whole to date. Nonetheless, total reduction of greenhouse gas emissions remains as a clear long-term goal for the Organization.


So what are the targets, and who are the people that are actually bothered about it? The goal is decarbonising shipping fully.HuffPostquotes Tristan Smith of University College London:


“Fully decarbonising shipping is eminently possible over the forthcoming decades, but this is not yet on track and is risking billions of dollars of misdirected investment and lost opportunity…. Fear and misunderstanding of this inevitable change is significant, including in much of the industry and this is holding up progress.”


According to the UCL website Dr Smith is a Reader in Energy and Shipping.Putting two and two together, Dr Smith is frustrated with a lack of development in his field, and the lack of funding available. Billions of dollars are going elsewhere and not into sorting this “inevitable change” out. So where is the money to come from? The implication is clear: deep-pocketed shipowners.

I too am frustrated.


Firstly the target of fully decarbonising shipping is next to impossible until someone comes up with a different material than steel to make ships from, or invents a process that doesn’t use coking coal (or hydrocarbon energy) to produce it. Finding a substitute for hydrocarbons to propel ships will also be a challenge. Back to sail I guess, unless we give shipowners nuclear power.


Secondly, the demand for ships, and indeed for deep-pocketed shipowners to invest in them, is derived from global trade. Despite Mr Trump’s best endeavours this is not going to change any time soon.


Thirdly, please can both sides start talking to each other? Shipowners remain silent mainly because they are suspicious and wary of the ignorance of other “stakeholders” when it comes to the real business of running ships.Assumptions abound.


To me it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that shipping does not commit to something before the technology is available. Whose fault will it when smartphones, computers and the other cheap low hanging fruits of globalisation cannot be delivered to members of think tanks and sloppy journalists then? I cannot be sure, but my bet is that the “deep-pocketed shipwoners” will take most of the blame.


Let me be clear. I believe in the science of climate change, and also believe that investment in technology will relieve if not resolve it. But burdening the tonnage providers that facilitate global trade with the task is like asking truck drivers to work out how to lower their emissions of their lorries. Not only is it unfair, it is unreasonable. Rather than blame the enablers of the most environmentally friendly form of transport using conspiracy theories, why not lobby the IMO to invest heavily in technology development at the World Maritime University rather than expect shipowners to do it? Shipping is all about relationships, and it would be a good idea to follow shipping’s example. Talk to shipowners, and understand their world before you completely alienate them from the discussions.You never know, both sides may benefit.


Simon Ward