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From buzzword to necessity: why shipping needs to take sustainability seriously

Photo: Evangelos Mpikakis - Unsplash evangelos-mpikakis-ocean-unsplash.jpg
Shipping is indispensable for delivering the world’s needs and wants. Yet, just as the oil, coal, and steel sectors have faced pressure in recent years, our role in the climate crisis is now under much closer scrutiny.

Not so long ago, we might have derided sustainability as just a buzzword. But climate change is not a challenge that we can sidestep or wait for others to tell us what to do. Each of us has a role to play in tackling the existential challenge that we face.

For class societies, that means actively facilitating shipping’s progress and charting a way forward through the energy transition. Many of the organisations that we work with share an ambition to deliver the carbon savings now required of shipping, but also face the challenge of finding the right decarbonisation strategies for their operations and their assets. Yet, as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, there is no such thing as a totally future-proof asset.

In meeting shipping’s decarbonisation goals, ambition is important, but so is pragmatism. Currently, there are no proven zero-carbon solutions that fulfil shipping’s net-zero ambitions. Work is ongoing, and Bureau Veritas has developed wind propulsion system rules and is due to release new ammonia rules and methanol rules in July. We have also projects underway for fuel cells and hydrogen. Batteries are making progress for short sea applications and will become more relevant for port operations. As perceptions of risks and benefits evolve, we may have to update our rules as new technology emerges onto the market, including nuclear.

So change is coming. The climate crisis, in combination with industry 4.0, will transform the sector. The questions are when, how and at what price.

Yet, shipping’s indispensable role as facilitators of over 90% of global trade continues. Demand growth continues, notwithstanding the disruption to trade flows caused by the pandemic. The first quarter of 2021 saw a record low order book and with an ageing fleet, we are already seeing consistency in new orders. For now, and for the immediate future, new ships will be powered by conventional if evolving, internal combustion systems fuelled by either distillates, ULSFO, scrubbed HFO or LNG. 

If that’s going to be the case for the foreseeable future, we need to focus on using a lot less fuel per cargo tonne mile if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing our net GHG impact, with operational and efficiency measures coming to the fore

Even when new e-fuels arrive, issues of energy density, safety, the significant extra space requirements for onboard bunker storage, their likely cost, and competition from other hard-to-abate sectors to secure them, means that there will be a continued need to reduce the consumption.

In the longer term, a real concerted focus to creating new ship designs capable of achieving net-zero will be essential for a truly sustainable industry. This is not a rebirth for shipping; we have transformation and transition in our collective DNA. The question is whether we’re ready to evolve at unprecedented speed by developing next-generation designs.

We also need to be prepared for surprises and changes in direction as the society’s demand and expectations evolve, have the necessary agility to respond to new technology, and be ready for new, unanticipated challenges. Much will change in ten years. Look what Covid-19 has done in months.

Additionally, a sustainable industry means we have to be ready to address some more holistic issues as well, beyond carbon and other air emissions, that impact on the marine environment and port communities. Underwater noise is a good example, and we can also see that over-water noise, in ports, is a problem in need of better solutions.

Sustainability will also be about knowing and supporting your customer in a more transparent world; not least in an era where standards for transparency and reporting are unlikely to develop evenly. Different markets will require different approaches, driven by local regulations, customer demand and voluntary initiatives by progressive coalitions such as the Poseidon Principles and Sea Cargo Charter. 

As ESG comes to the fore, we must not forget another ‘S’ upon whom we all rely; our seafarers. The pandemic has shown that the industry was unable to protect its seafarers as they deserved. This failure to ensure effective crew change during the pandemic has demonstrated the need for a more effective response. As an industry, we all agreed on the problem, but were unable to leverage this into meaningful action. We hope that the Neptune Declaration, which Bureau Veritas signed, will take a meaningful step forward towards resolving the crew change crisis and providing the support needed by millions of seafarers and their families.

A more sustainable industry needs to take care of its people to help secure its future. With brands such as Unilever announcing that it will only work with those who pay living wages, shipping should recognise its place in global supply chains and seek to support those customers looking to effect positive change through their own supply chain, whether that is around pay and working conditions, traceability or environmental impact.

Despite our importance as a sector, we also need to admit that shipping is far from all-powerful. It is unlikely that we will see shipping secure early access to sustainable e-fuels at sustainable prices ahead. At the very least, it would be foolish to base our modelling on such an assumption. It is more likely that shipping will transform and decarbonise at the same pace as the rest of society and other hard-to-abate sectors, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find areas in which we can innovate.

Shipping is facing new levels of scrutiny. From charterers, shippers and regulators, to campaign groups and consumers, the demand for the industry to move from an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ position to one of transparency and sustained action on sustainability is the world we now find ourselves in. Our response can draw upon the best of shipping’s tradition for bold ambition, combined with ruthless pragmatism. Whatever happens, class will play a vital role in this process; reducing risk, supporting safety, delivering high performance while protecting the sea.

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