Maritime decarbonisation must start at maritime academies

David Hume, the founder of The Liquid Grid, looks at how America’s next generation of seafarers could lead world shipping to a greener future.

Maritime decarbonisation won’t happen without adoption of low-carbon energy technologies.

Unfortunately, innovative energy technologies aren’t adopted all at once. Instead, technologies follow a adoption curve, which is the cumulative rate at which a user-group adopts the technology over time. This trend has been observed across numerous industries with countless products. It is so common that there are standard names for the five phases of the adoption curve, based upon the type of adopter and how long it takes for them to start using the new technology: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

The speed at which a technology moves through these phases depends on numerous factors. For example a recent survey of 750 executives by the Economist Intelligence Unit finds that some of the biggest challenges to technology adoption include “employee skills and lack of senior management awareness.”

These challenges are solvable. For instance, many management professionals believe that one surefire way to facilitate technology adoption is by “building the new technology into the routines and rhythms of the workday as soon as possible.”

Maritime decarbonization technologies must quickly pass through their respective adoption curves if the industry wants to achieve International Maritime Organization emissions reduction goals for 2030 and 2050. More innovators and early adopters are needed in maritime leadership roles to make this happen. To produce more change makers, we need to provide mariners with early exposure and ample training opportunities on new energy technologies.

Merchant mariner change-makers

The merchant marine workforce is often split into two groups: licensed and unlicensed. Licensed mariners must go through numerous years of advanced training and pass rigorous examinations to acquire a license from the US Coast Guard that authorises them to operate commercial vessels as a deck or engine officer. Unlicensed mariners make up the critical majority of the workforce and the roles they fill generally require less training and experience, but are no less important to the industry.

Licensed mariners assume many leadership and management roles in the maritime industry, both on ships and ashore, and they make many of the key business decisions. These are the change-makers for the maritime industry and where decarbonization training would be most impactful.

Maritime academies and decarbonisation

In the US there are seven maritime academies that produce about 95% (or approximately 1,100 graduates) of the country’s total licensed mariner workforce each year. Of the seven academies, six are state-funded and located in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, California, and Michigan. The seventh, the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) at Kings Point, New York, is the only one that is federally-funded.

While there has been a slow and steady decline over the past three decades in the number of mariners, a study produced in 2015 (commissioned by the US Departments of Labor, Education, and Transportation) estimates that there will be 74,000 maritime job openings (roughly split between licensed and unlicensed positions) between 2012 and 2022. Given this labour demand, the maritime academies have a critical role in not only supplying capable and skillfull mariners, but also in educating them on the latest technologies driving maritime decarbonisation.

Maritime decarbonisation curriculum

Sadly, maritime decarbonisation curriculum at most of the maritime academies is lacking. None of the academies have required classes for all students that are focused on the environmental aspects of shipping. Most of the academies do have at least one course that investigates the environmental aspects of shipping or relevant renewable energy technologies. Judging by current course catalogs, Massachusetts and Maine Maritime Academies have the most courses and are the only ones with dedicated majors or minors for clean energy in maritime.

The other academies have one or two elective courses, but these are by definition optional and thereby reach a limited number of students. One reason the academies might not require such courses is simply because clean energy training is not needed for obtaining a USCG license. US license requirements are set by the USCG and adhere to an international regulation called the Standards for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW). These STCW requirements stipulate a common baseline for mariner training and the academies devote a substantial portion of their curriculum to meeting these requirements so that students can obtain licenses at graduation. With an already demanding core curriculum for STCW requirements, squeezing in additional required courses for sustainable shipping practices isn’t easy, but the academies should elevate these courses to the same level as those needed for STCW requirements.

Training vessels – teaching the status quo?

Classroom training isn’t the only way the maritime academies can expose students to new energy technologies. Each academy hosts a training ship used to provide hands-on training to the students. Nearly every student at a given maritime academy will spend time on the school’s training ship before they graduate, which makes these vessels ideal loci for exposing students to new technologies. However, as of this writing, the average age of these ships is more than 37 years. These vessels are so old that they are no longer representative of what students will see in industry and they are in dire need of replacement.

Fortunately, the US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) is spending approximately $1.5 billion replacing five of these decrepit training ships with “new, purpose-built training vessels that will better meet the academies training needs while also providing the US with ships that can support disaster response and other critical national needs.” These National Security Multi-Mission Vessels (pictured below), or NSMVs, could meet other “critical national needs” such as rapid decarbonisation in the global fight against climate change.

The NSMVs could have been fitted with state-of-art low- and zero-carbon energy technologies such as large-scale marine batteries, fuel cells, or even supplemental wind propulsion. Instead, they feature diesel-electric propulsion systems and operate on fossil fuels. This was a missed opportunity for training our future mariners on the latest energy systems.

But perhaps the NSMV design can be modified for future builds, or the ships can be retrofitted, to accommodate newer technologies. If the NSMVs were equipped with the latest low-carbon energy technologies these vessels would be invaluable training aids for future maritime leaders.

The US maritime academies have a pivotal role in shaping the maritime energy transition. The academies produce the majority of the nation’s maritime leaders who go on to make critical business decisions within the industry. If we train these future maritime leaders on the technologies we want to see in industry, whether through required courses or state-of-the-art training vessels, they will become the innovators and early adopters we desperately need to rapidly decarbonise.


  1. If the illustration accompanying the article is anything to go by the next generation of seafarers serving on ‘Zero Carbon Lines’ are going to spend a lot of time being seasick. That bridge forward arrangement in a heavy seas in open ocean is a recipe for discomfort and will feel like riding a never ending rollercoaster.

  2. These comments may be valid for the USA, but perhaps not globally.
    Certainly, the cadets I am involved with in Hong Kong are incredibly aware of environmental issues, as are the vast majority of reputable ship owners and operators. Bear in mind it was the shipping companies which launched the Fair Winds Charter in Hong Kong, where they agreed to burn only low-sulphur fuel in the port in an effort to persuade the government to introduce legislation. From memory, a few dozen companies followed the lead of Swire, and Maersk. Together, they represented a majority of the container ships calling at Hong Kong and successfully showed government the way.
    You could, perhaps, argue that the recent IMO meeting saw ship owners’ organisations lobbying for more to be done, only to be thwarted by government delegations.
    With the amount of research and development going on at the moment, I suspect (and fervently hope) decarbonisation will be a fact long before the present crop of trainees in the USA will be in a position to influence events.

  3. Dear authorities
    The reality as per my observation specially in the gulf area is that no body follows the rules,
    Including ( seafarers, surveyors, management, etc) only the rules are on papers,
    I am onboard 3rd Engineer where the ship is carrying HSFO in storage, settling and service tanks,
    Surveyour came onboard and pass the survey.
    Not even a single Annex of MARPOL is followed,
    I experience a totally controversial between what I study and what I actually experiencing.
    Being a professional I personally never break any law and trying to protect my mother planet as soon as possible.
    Please do some strick actions in the areas where rules are not followed.

  4. Mr.Hume, thank you for your lengthy article….
    Typical armchair representative talk for the New GREEN World Religion Apostles.
    I am an old mariner and I have seen and experienced it ALL.
    In our today’s civilized world ( I am nòt talking about the 3rd world areas ) we have come a longgg
    I do recall the NY harbour barges loaded with solid waste being towed out to sea and bulldozed
    the waste into the ocean…
    I have enjoyed the stench of raw sewage from London shipped by specially built tankers that
    discharged their waste just outside the Thames entrance into the North Sea.
    I have called the Northern European mainports, like Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Bremen with
    my ships and experienced the dirty oily black dead waters of those ports.
    The air pollution was suffocating.
    I do recall the red tides in Lake Erie, the horrible views along Chicago’s Calumet River.
    In the beautiful Mediterranean Sea ports, their beaches polluted with plastic bottles.

    Quelle Miracle, have a look NOW at those same locations as mentioned above!

    People are fishing in the harbours, ducks and swans are swimming around with pristine white feathers, nice boardwalks, boats and yachts galore!

    When are you, the self proclaimed Green Knights, ever satisfied?
    Green is the New Religion for the Never Real “Working” Elites.
    And I fully AGREE, we should protect our environment for our children ànd grandchildren!
    But we should not KILL our economy at the same time.

    Our future Mariners NEED education to become real professionals.
    Let them study and focus on their future jobs.
    Teach them NOT to pollute our oceans. That’s all they should know.
    Stop the complete ” Climate Change ” nonsense. It’s called ” The Weather “.
    There are more Polar Bears and Whales than ever !
    The sea-level is nòt rising.
    Some years we have more hurricanes than other years.

    Thank you!

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