Reflections on London International Shipping Week 2017

Shipping magnate John Fredriksen, owner of the world’s largest oil tanker fleet, chats to UK maritime minister John Hayes at London International Shipping Week (Pic: LISW / Flickr)

Cognitive dissonance.

That’s the best way I can describe the three sessions I’ve attended at London International Shipping Week 2017 so far.

Panellists at events run by Lloyds List, Lloyd’s Register and the International Chamber of Shipping have been quick to score an easy win by branding climate change a serious threat.

No-one, after all, wants to come across like a mini climate-denying Trump, especially after the carnage inflicted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

Some, such as IMO chief Kitack Lim on Wednesday, acknowledge it’s the greatest challenge facing the shipping sector in the coming decade.

“Make no mistake, the whole world will be watching the IMO next year,” Lim told a gathering held by ICS at the British Library, referring to the IMO’s planned 2018 interim climate strategy.

While there’s no doubting Lim’s personal commitment to tackling greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, the gap between public rhetoric and private action is wide.

Shipowners, financiers, government policymakers and lobbyists are happy to trot out claims of climate commitment, confident their claims will face little interrogation.

But dig into the proposals the likes of ICS are recommending ahead of an IMO deal and that ambition evaporates fast. Binding targets? No thanks. Absolute emission cuts? Ah, sorry.

A submission from major industry groups ahead of the July 2017 round of UN climate and shipping talks revealed a major flaw in the narrative industry is keen to take action.

The only GHG cuts proposed were relative — 50% CO2 cuts per tonne kilometre by 2050 — suggesting a misunderstanding of the basic laws of physics behind climate science.

Dangerous climate change — and that is what we’re faced with — is only avoided by absolute emission reduction, not good intentions or glossy sustainability brochures.

Yet the last few days have revealed a persistent inability of business leaders to realise shipping — as vast as it is — is merely one cog in a vast industrial machine that will have to change.

Keep calm and carry on

ICS vice chairman John Adams — who also chairs the Bahamas shipowners association — told the audience on Wednesday that getting “emotive” about climate change was slowing progress.

To a point John: try telling that to the citizens of the Bahamas. The Inter-American Development Bank predicts climate damages there could exceed $500 million a year by 2030.

It was an especially odd comment considering the damage wreaked on the Caribbean by Irma last week, which may or may not have been supercharged by warming air and oceans.

ICS board member for Greek shipowners John Lyras said there was no need for targets, that the Paris Agreement was voluntary, that regulations were already tight.

Not so tight, one might argue, that shipping efficiency rules are working: research from CE Delft published in June suggests the fuel economy of new vessels stalled in 2016.

My favourite line was on Monday, courtesy of Norton Rose partner Philip Roche, when asked to comment by the ever-excellent Richard Clayton from Lloyds List on incoming IMO SOx rules.

“If you’re an environmentalist and concerned about people’s health it’s good thing,” he said, as if this wasn’t an issue that all in the audience would necessarily agree on.

And so it rolled on. The top US shipping official at the ICS talks suggested IMO always set the bar low as it makes it easier to get everyone on board. Natch.

Emanuele Grimaldi, MD of the shipping giant Grimaldi Group, said they always build the most efficient ship “taking account of current circumstances”. So if fuel is cheap, low efficiency?

This is just a segment of opinion. Many in the audiences of the events I attended may disagree: IMO official Edmund Hughes asked panellists on Monday to seek the “positives” of cleaner air.

We can only hope that the appointment of Sveinung Oftedal from Norway’s climate ministry as chair of IMO GHG talks will spark a change here: Olso is a world leader in low emission shipping.

It’s also worth saluting those companies who are showing signs of change. Green radicals Lloyds Register, Rolls Royce, BMT, Shell and MSI are among those on board HMS low emission.

The findings from a research project supported by those businesses and led by UCL Energy were published in full this week.

One headline is they expect zero emission ships to “significantly” penetrate global shipping markets by 2030.

As we’ve seen with smartphones, solar and electric cars, technology development does not follow a straight and predictable path.

There’s no reason to believe ships won’t be the same given the right incentives: pilots of autonomous, hydrogen, zero emission and hybrid vessels are already underway.

Truth is, it’s a sector on the cusp of something special — which will impact all our lives. But based on the panels I’ve observed this week — it’s also one still dominated by dated thinking, and it’s time that changed.