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Six years on, how a 2009 emissions headline throws shipping's PR failures into focus

Six years on, how a 2009 emissions headline throws shipping's PR failures into focus
Last week shipping  made it to the top spot of Reddit, the self-styled "front page of the internet", and few will be surprised that it was there taking a hammering.

An article on the Guardian's website written in 2009 rose to the top of social site, which attracted 172,710,261 unique hits last month. On Tuesday John Vidal's 2009 article "Health risks of shipping pollution have been 'underestimated'" attracted over 6,000 "upvotes" (think Facebook likes) and more than 3,000 comments from Reddit users.

The article in question focuses on SOx, NOx and particulate emissions of container shipping, a subheading stating that, "One giant container ship can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50m cars." Comparisons with road freight and rail freight were, naturally, absent.

For those of us within the shipping industry, the flaws and sensationalism in the article are readily apparent, and because we have a fuller view of the picture, these arguments are easy to dismiss.

What we see here, though, is a candid view of shipping's PR problem - a total lack of awareness amongst the general public. While regulation is here repeatedly held up as a solution, it is just as often knocked down as other commenters suggest that it is nigh-impossible to regulate the shipping industry, a notion some seafarers might be in a position to debunk should their mountains of paperwork permit them to see the computer screen.

The more-technically minded commenters took turns in listing alternative fuels for ocean trade, including diesel, nuclear, wind and LNG. The only two suggestions for power I had not previously encountered in serious discussions of shipping's environmental future both involved attaching harnesses to sea creatures. Perhaps forward-thinking UASC might be persuaded to look into it.

Well-informed comments on the lack of suitable alternatives, environmental and regulatory progress and even the IMO's global 0.5% sulphur cap, regulation specifically addressing the issue being discussed, are well-buried beneath a thousand users remarking how awful the figures are and suggesting their own simple one-step solutions. Mentions of shipping's environmental supremacy in CO2 emissions per tonne-mile, on the other hand, are either poignantly absent from discussion, or buried under nonsense - milestones such as Maersk, achieving so much in CO2 emissions reductions that it raised its own targets, conspicuously absent.

Given Reddit's age demographic, is it any wonder that shipping is no longer perceived as a glamorous career option? Or at worse, an irrelevance, such as in the UK, where a 2014 Seafarers Awareness Week survey showed that only 2% realised that 95% of their food arrives on ships, with more than half of Britons assuming it was either flown or driven in.

This news may have been a flash in the pan, briefly resurfacing only, as with all online news, to be obscured by the next scandalous issue. But there is certainly a question left to be asked: How, in the theatre of public opinion, can the work of countless thousands of seafarers, designers, engineers and regulators in our industry still be negated by yesterday's chip paper?