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The evolving role of class: seafarers, technology, and energy transition

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At the CMA Shipping Virtual Event, Tim Protheroe, Marine and Offshore Regional Chief Executive, North America at Bureau Veritas, shared his thoughts on seafarers, technology, and energy transition.

The pandemic has brought three key issues in the shipping industry into focus: climate change, technology, and seafarers.

Human resources are perhaps the greatest asset as the industry assesses and adapts to the role of technology in the future of shipping. While automation and remote technologies are being accelerated into adoption, the plight of 400,000 estimated seafarer who are currently at sea still has no resolution.

Low morale, fatigue and the risk to safety is just the tip of the iceberg.

We are also on the brink of a major transition in the global energy market – even before COVID-19 – as climate change has moved to the forefront of most conversations. Reducing emissions and enabling cleaner sources of energy has become a priority and the full effect on shipping will only be realized in years, if not decades, to come.

At the recent CMA Shipping Virtual Event, Tim Protheroe, Marine and Offshore Regional Chief Executive, North America at Bureau Veritas, shared his thoughts on what are currently some of the most important issues in shipping and the role of class.*

Many will be familiar with the role of classification societies as they have been around for hundreds of years. They have an important role in assisting shipowners and shipyards in the management, design, construction, and in-service phases of ship management.

Protheroe believes the shipping industry has “seen massive change, or a paradigm shift as some people are referring it to, in what is taking place in technology”. 2020 has been a challenging year for all stakeholders in shipping and Protheroe believes it has shown the industry is extremely resilient. “Ships kept running, cargo continued to be delivered – of all shapes and sizes – but a big lesson it is teaching us is the situation of seafarers,” he comments.

“As a seafarer myself, I have a great deal of empathy on this topic,” states Protheroe. He believes the current situation has shown how invisible the industry is in some ways, “it flies under the radar in many regards and it is unfortunate that when something like this happens. It is secondary to certain political concerns around the world in terms of ensuring that the people who work in this vital part of the supply chain are afforded the right kind of attention when it comes to working in contract conditions.”

As a global fleet, there are approximately 10-15 thousand ships around the world. There is a fundamental tension between the necessity to give crews the opportunity to change out and get off the vessel, versus the logistical reality they can’t. Rules, regulations, requirements, and processes have made increasingly complex when dealing with associations, agencies, and different levels of government.

Protheroe doesn’t believe there is currently an instant solution but there are people working towards this goal. As the shipping industry has grown used to operating in a form of isolation it has seen little cause to engage outside its realm of influence or on the political arena, and this presents a problem. Protheroe observes when it comes to the industry asking for assistance, “due to the governance of the industry and how vessels are registered etc., countries are looking to their domestic situation and issues as a priority.”

“From a class point of view, we do everything we can do to facilitate the continuous running of a vessel,” notes Protheroe. “We find that when going on board ships - even when seafarers have been there a long time - they are incredibly resilient people. This is to their immense credit as they are dealing with very difficult circumstances,” he continues.

From the technical side, to the commercial side of the industry, it is clear the seafarers situation is a much wider and bigger issue that the whole industry must work on collectively, “to give it the visibility is deserves so that they can facilitate the solutions to what is now a humanitarian crisis,” notes Protheroe. He does point out that in a recent meeting at the Global Maritime Forum, the Safe Cargo Charter had been announced, and that it was “a great piece of progress to resolving many of these issues.”

Another big challenge for the shipping industry is energy transition - which is taking place based on the requirements in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While the shipping has been in the spotlight for some time, the doubling down of attention on the industry has meant emissions and the energy transition have come under greater scrutiny. This is the great conundrum for the industry right now, and moving forward notes Protheroe remarks, “ordering future new builds, new ships, and what equipment those new ships will have – what do owners decide on?”

What is the technology which is going to be futureproof in the current environment against the backdrop of regulations that will then ensure a normal 20-25-year fatigue life for a vessel will be relevant?

In Protheroe’s view, “there is lots of activity, lots of research and development which is taking place, and LNG will be the short-term transition fuel, but there are also opportunities… I’m sure there is technology, and research and development activity, on new fuels and new propulsion systems which will catch up with these regulations to ensure the industry is well placed to meet these regulations by 2050.”

But what do owners do right now, and how is the classification industry assisting with that?

“Different fuels, different technologies, engines are developing rapidly. There are joint ventures and joint industry projects taking place between various stakeholders to manage the situation and I think this is going to be a key area for the industry moving forward in terms of how decisions are made on assets,” answers Protheroe, and he believes the role of class is changing in some ways.

Classification has always been a repository of knowledge, experience and expertise, but Protheroe believes it has shifted to more of an advisory capacity these days.

“The basic classification, statutory inspection and surveys are still there with global networks of surveyors to ensure the vessels are maintained in accordance with classification rules and international standards.”

He continues, “but it has become a bit of a commodity these days. The real value out of class is on the advisory piece, leveraging that knowledge and expertise, working with the various stakeholders, and shipowners most importantly, in assisting with the solutions they need for this long term play leading into the greenhouse gas regulations in the future.”

As COVID-19 thrusts adaptation and adoption on shipping, Protheroe believes developments continue at pace, “whether it’s to do with engine development, the new two-stroke engines which are showing greater efficiency, paint systems, hull optimization, digitalization, I haven’t seen any delay in the context of the discussions which we have daily with our clients… there is a huge push forward in all of these areas to assist, facilitate and accelerate developments.”

* Protheroe’s comments form part of a panel discussion covering the shipping industry’s top 5 initiatives at CMA Shipping 2020.

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