The Greta Effect
09 Jan 2020 - Emma Mark
"At the moment we can't yet see what the best clean fuel would be for ships. But there's a real urgency about solving the problem."
Guy Platten, ICS Secretary-General, December 2019
Another year, another case of stating the flipping obvious. I know he’s right but let’s be honest, we’re all aware of the problem facing us right now; not just in our industry but on a global scale. I think that’s where Mr Platten is going wrong - he’s identified the problem that is decades old but to which he and many other organisational heads have no answer.
Mr Platten does go on to say that there are plans for a levy to be introduced on fuel consumption to the tune of $2 per tonne of bunkers, which according to the article, 90% of merchant shipowners globally are behind. The IMO has yet to agree on the levy and even if it does, what’s really going to happen to that fund? How can they enforce it? There are talks of a 10-year research plan being the output of the fund, but here’s the thing, if the IMO were to agree to the levy we’re talking about some serious cash kicking around and is it really going to be spent on research and development or will a hefty chunk be spent on think-tanks and overpriced consultants who have PhDs in navel-gazing?
Only time will tell but let us hope that the funding will be used to accelerate the development of new zero-carbon technologies and propulsion systems, such as green hydrogen and ammonia, fuel cells, batteries and synthetic fuels produced from renewable energy sources. But most importantly, lets just hope that it doesn’t take 10 years before we see any results…
Aside from punitive levies, slow-steaming continues to be proposed as the silver bullet that’s going to save our industry. Though obviously feasible, it can’t be successful with the introduction of mandatory speed limits. As we’ve said before in similar blogs, slowing ships down requires an increase in the subsequent number of vessels needed to maintain service levels and not disrupt the supply chain.
The innovation of carbon-neutral ships is a worthy goal, but let’s not forget the enormous costs involved; research, testing, production and of course the fuel used by other vessels to get materials from one shipyard to another. Furthermore, the necessary cost of scrapping our existing carbon-fueled ships would be exponential. Bigger ships require bigger scrap yards as more than a few 22,000 TEU’s vessels will have to be dealt with ethically and responsibly.
So where does that leave us? If the $2 bunker levy is endorsed by the IMO, what happens to the smaller shipping companies that simply don’t have the money to pay the additional costs and remain in business? Those privileged few companies that can afford the additional fees are no doubt rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of adding a few more cheaply sold-off vessels to their fleet when these smaller companies go bust. The grand ambition to develop new renewable fuels is vital, but we also need to scale down the problem and look at solutions we can implement that may look small from the outside, but can make a very real difference to fuel consumption and environmental impact today, not ten years down the line when it’s all just a bit too late.
It’s a simple question: How do we reduce fuel consumption right now? We get ships to sail slower because it makes business sense to do so, not because it’s forced upon businesses (carrot vs stick).
The biggest reason ships go full-steam ahead (pun very much intended), is because they’re late, behind schedule or trying to maintain an impossible schedule getting from one port to the next. So instead of slowing down, why not just stay on time?
But it’s not that easy I hear you cry! Well, I’d beg to differ, just one simple change could make all the difference. Our current processes are working, but are they optimal? If our processes are not fully optimised, finding the right clean fuel isn’t the problem - we’ll still be using far too much of whatever new superclean fuel is developed whilst the inefficiencies in the industry persist.
The way I see it is this, we can’t wave a magic wand and be gifted with a sustainable fuel source for our ships, but we can help fund the research for it. We can join forces to ensure that the funding for that research is producing tangible results in a timely fashion, after all, it’s your money they’re spending. But most importantly, we can start small to get the biggest results (and they won’t take 10 years). Greta Thunberg started as one young girl skipping school to get the Swedish Government to recognise climate change. A few years on and she has inspired millions to get involved and work towards a cleaner tomorrow. She was just one person, she did one thing and she achieved phenomenal results because of it.
I’ll leave you with the following quote, because if we all make one or two changes to how we treat our planet, we might just get to stick around on her for a bit longer…