Stopford calls on shipping’s Elon Musks to step forward

Speaking at the Asian Logistics, Maritime and Aviation Conference yesterday, Dr Martin Stopford, the non-executive president of Clarkson Research Services and the most famous shipping economist on the planet, laid out how he sees the industry’s decarbonisation path this decade.

On a panel at the centrepiece of this week’s Hong Kong Maritime Week, Stopford, who tends to mix maritime history into most presentations he gives, pointed out how previous big shifts in shipping technology had come about thanks to pioneering leaders such as Alfred Holt who transformed the industry from sail to steam, or the East Asiatic Line president who moved shipping from steam to diesel 110 years ago and Malcom McLean’s invention of the shipping container in the 1950s.

“I’m very confident we’re going to find a few Elon Musks kicking around the industry somewhere,” Stopford said, referring to the Tesla and SpaceX pioneer.

The crucial difference today with decarbonisation compared to the previous changes mentioned earlier by Stopford is that they were all driven by economics, today’s challenge is not.

With constraints driven by tech R&D and shipyard output, shipping will need to focus heavily on retrofits in the coming decade, Stopford said.

The dynamics of supply and demand will be a massive problem and there has to be some sort of retrofitting

The existing fleet will create half of all shipping emissions over the next 30 years, Stopford predicted. Ships ordered today still use “fairly conventional technology” Stopford said, saying LNG propulsion is”just scraping the surface”. It will take through until the end of the decade before owners can have confidence to use hydrogen and ammonia technology in deepsea trades. The problem with this time lag, Stopford said, is that there will be enormous pent up demand for these new ship types as replacement tonnage by 2030 and yet shipyards can only deliver a few percent of the extant fleet a year.

“The dynamics of supply and demand will be a massive problem and there has to be some sort of retrofitting,” Stopford stressed, adding: “When we build a ship today we need to build it to be retrofitted.”

This is not a new phenomenon, the eminent maritime historian pointed out. The first diesel ship, the Selandia, built in 1911, had its engine replaced twice over its first 15 years and the engine on the ship after about 20 years was roughly a third the size from when the ship was first delivered.

Stopford told delegates attending the Hong Kong government-convened event that is was vital that shipping and charterers get carbon into the cost revenue equation fast.

“It used to be if you chartered a ship it was revenue minus the cost. If you charter a ship from now on it is the revenue minus the cost plus the carbon,” Stopford said, suggesting owners will need to demonstrate with good digital technology that the ships they propose for chartering are using less carbon.

“Big companies are willing to pay for less carbon … It is something extremely quantifiable that you could almost put into the balance sheet,” Stopford said.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Huge respect for Dr Stopford as always but I’m afraid the Musk comparison doesn’t hold up.

    You need only look at the fortunes of the few listed shipping companies to see that.

    Green finance may provide a window of opportunity for some entrepreneurs but it’s unlikely too many investors will like what they see when they look through that window.

  2. The current Gadarene rush on alternative propulsion systems is not an efficiency or commercially founded move. It is being driven by some questionable science. I’m sceptical of the vilification of the maritime sector when compared with emissions from surface transport particularly trucks, vans and cars. We seem to be risking economic development and well being for a larger proportion of the world’s population and to deny enhanced living standards as a sacrifice to climate change virtue. Check Galileo and the earth centric universe theory!

  3. ”…….the most famous shipping economist on the planet…….”
    Isn’t Splash 24/7’s fanboy worship getting a bit out of hand?
    Don’t forget that it was the same Stopford who predicted that porthole insulated containers would take over the world of perishable cargo shipping in 2000…………something not quite right there.

  4. Who is or was Alfred Hoult?
    I know of Alfred Holt = the Liverpool shipping owner and head of Blue Funnel Line (my first employer, as it happens) but his name had no ‘u’ in it.

  5. Technically speaking, Malcolm McLean did not invent the shipping container. He adopted the use of the concept invented and engineered by Keith Tantlinger.

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