Business and (some) governments emerge as new agents of shipping’s climate change

Alisdair Pettigrew from BLUE Communications on the change of mood among shipping CEOs witnessed at COP26. 

Glasgow, Saturday 6th November. The International Chamber of Shipping event Shaping the Future of Shipping may not be a date that signalled a turning point in thinking within shipping and its approach to decarbonisation. But for those that attended, there was some consensus – among a predominantly middle-aged, white male, blue-suited audience: this was a seminal day.

CEOs from the world’s major containerlines stood up and stated, one after the other, their encouragement that change is needed in the form of a $300 per tonne carbon levy, an R&D fund, and a target of net zero by 2050. This collective decisiveness is not what shipping has been accustomed to; feeling uneasily unrepresentative of years of elongated technical discussions at IMO around wording of documentation that did not include the ‘D’ word – decarbonisation. 

To quizzical expressions, a spirit of dramatic change purveyed. Tanker shipping routes, for decades shaped by the transport of fossil energy from source in the Middle East or the US Gulf, would be usurped and replaced by…wait for it…Chile. Why Chile? Well, as the energy minister for Chile explained to the audience, Chile is ideally placed to be the source of seemingly abundant green hydrogen. Shipping, he proclaimed, we’re here for you. 

Shipping would, according to the minister, be the first in line to receive this new low carbon source of energy. No longer, so we were told, would shipping be the last in line – the happy recipient of the highly polluting, waste, residual product Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO), or its more recent form, Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) (don’t be fooled though, the ‘very low’ still equates to 500 times the sulphur level of the average car in the EU).

But why this new progressive mindset from the container market, which represents approximately 13% of the world’s ocean-going vessels, and over 50% of the industry’s approximate 1 billion tonne carbon footprint? The answer: Amazon, IKEA, and Unilever. To name just a few of the liner market’s biggest customers. 

They, along with Brooks Running, Frog Bikes, Inditex, Michelin, Patagonia, and Tchibo are the first signatories to the Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV); a new coalition with an ambition statement of zero carbon shipping by 2040. “The time to act is now and we welcome other cargo owner companies who want to lead on addressing climate change to join us in collaboration,” said Edgar Blanco, Director, Net-Zero Carbon at Amazon. Jeff Bezos was evidentially unavailable for comment.

L’espirit de changement continued as COP26 veered to an inconclusive close, with the Clydebank Declaration, launched by 19 states with the aim of setting zero-emission maritime routes between two or more ports. The critical aim is to get 5% of the vessels to net zero by 2030, and set a pathway to net zero by 2050. The signatories agreeing an objective of setting up ‘at least six green shipping corridors by the middle of the decade’.

Representatives of nation states at IMO’s MEPC, which meets next week, might be excused for asking ‘what the actual…’ just happened?! One can only hope the quick, clear thinking and decisive actions of the past few weeks trigger a new, more progressive mentality among MEPC delegates. And in particular those packed off with a mandate to stifle progression and protect oil and coal revenue and jobs.  Business and (some) governments have emerged as new agents of shipping’s climate change. They sent a signal that the ‘Blah Blah Blah’ has had its day and are not willing to hang around for the IMO.

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