Opinion: Is global political action needed to help shipping go green?

Asbjørn Halsebakke, Product Manager, Yaskawa Environmental Energy / The Switch, ponders how greater political action could help the maritime industry meet its most ambitious environmental goals.

Why hasn’t the climate crisis elicited the same urgent response from global governments as the corona pandemic? When confronted with the terrible threat of viral spread, national leaders rapidly introduced emergency measures, the like of which we’ve never before imagined, let alone experienced. Huge swathes of the economy have been shut down, public behaviour and interaction have been transformed, literally overnight.

Let me stress now – I am not downplaying the danger of Covid-19 and have huge sympathy for everyone impacted, in any way, by this crisis.

The World Health Organization estimates that seven million people die every year due to air pollution. The same body reports that between 2030 and 2050 an additional 250,000 deaths will occur each year as a direct result of further global warming, relating to factors such as heat stress and malnutrition. And that’s before we get on to rising sea levels, wildfires, extreme weather and, well, the list goes on.

Our world is dying. And we’re the ones killing it. It’s clear, surely, that something needs to be done.

Support our industry!

As the chief engine for global trade and the enabler that allows us to access the resources and wealth of our ocean space, shipping has a key role to play. We need to change our industry if we are to help change the world.

Work is underway. The IMO has set the ambitious, yet crucial, target of reducing GHG emissions by 50% (compared to 2008 levels) by 2050, with the overall aim of eliminating them entirely. This is to be applauded, but it also needs to be supported.

When I speak to shipowners, I usually find them eager to introduce green technology, help reduce emissions and work towards a more sustainable industry. But, quite frankly, they cannot make this transition alone. They need help.

Shipping is a tough and notoriously capital-intensive market. Retrofitting environmentally friendly solutions may not be the priority. At the same time, newbuilding yards generally won’t fit the best environmental solution for a vessel unless the customer presses them – they’ll fit the one that delivers the greatest margin. And who can blame them?

So, the industry requires clear, strategic and impactful assistance to meet its lofty goals. It needs governments and regulators to step in and deliver the policy and instruments that will facilitate the green shift now…because this is a matter that will not wait.

Enabling change

What those measures should be are open to debate. Taxes on vessels with poor environmental performance would encourage the uptake of better solutions, while the income from those taxes could be used to support the development and installation of new technology. Stricter regulations would require compliance, but perhaps the financial burden could be shifted to government – in the same way as they are providing aid right now – with green grants, or access to funding that is reliant on meeting stringent environmental criteria.

Research into green synthetic fuels – a vaccine against pollution – could be fast-tracked and centrally supported, while technology that is already available and proven today, such as batteries and hybrid systems, could be encouraged for immediate efficiency and emissions gains on today’s world fleet.

Newbuilds with future-proof technology, capable of utilizing any fuel source, such as The Switch DC-Hub, could be incentivized for owners, ensuring that they have the capability to meet all future regulations and fuel mixes, for long-term compliance and efficient sailing.

These are relatively modest measures that could translate into huge environmental benefits – for our industry, society and the planet. We just need to get started.

We can do this if we work together. And, if the corona pandemic has proven anything, it’s shown we are certainly capable of doing that, achieving extraordinary things in remarkably tight timescales.

The biggest challenges require the greatest responses, and there is no bigger threat than climate change. It’s time for those in power to respond. The world demands it.