We are all in the same boat

Diane Gilpin from the Smart Green Shipping Alliance exhorts readers to quit pussyfooting around when it comes to embracing the possibilities surrounding decarbonisation.

I love this artwork by Erica Nockalls, created for HELIX’s events at the COP23 climate conference currently being held in Bonn. It shows a Fijian drua – a traditional wind-powered craft – overcoming (we hope) a storm. Fiji is the official host of the COP23 talks but, being such a small nation, they can’t physically host the crowds of people who flock to these events. Whilst the good people of Bonn are providing the venues Fiji is the host. For small islands keeping global temperature increases below 1.5oC is a matter of life and death.

This image beautifully captures the global challenge we all face in addressing climate change.

We live in an interconnected world but reductionism and separatism tend to define our individual world view. We experience ourselves as separate from nature and this shapes how we function – we see nature as a resource rather than a host.

As we distort planetary systems it all gets very messy. It is simply not sustainable and we’ve all borne witness to that in recent years – storms and heatwaves increase causing death and destruction; food supply chains collapse – because of climactic conditions changing faster than species can adapt; insect species we utterly rely on for pollinating our foods are becoming extinct. This can and does cause deep human suffering which in turn leads to mass migration and the awful consequences of global civil unrest.

Because we humans are interdependent with all the living systems on the planet it’s humanity that must face up to the imminent breakdown of ecosystems vital for the survival of our species. The planet will be fine, it’s survived climate chaos before and will do again. This is about you and me. All of us. We’re all in the same boat.

It’s time to fully embrace the enormity of the collective challenge we all face. It’s time to grow up. We are a relatively young species and we’re behaving like spoilt kids. We’ve got to stop demanding more and more from nature. Just as teenagers have to mature in to fully productive members of their community so our species needs to realise we can no longer just keep drawing down from the natural capital stores of the Earth. Maturity brings with it the realisation that in an interconnected world the best way to care for those we love, those we are responsible for is to care about all life – it’s enlightened self-interest.

We’d all accept that it’s not at all helpful when you’re in a drua on a stormy sea to declare: “I’m sorry but it’s just not possible for me to change.” Or to point at other people in the canoe and refuse to help because you don’t believe they are pulling their weight. Because if you do, the whole crew is at greater risk, everyone drowns. And that’s simply not what seafarers do.

In shipping we understand interconnectedness, being the facilitator, the interconnectors, of global trade, and because shipping is such a vital element of the wider planetary system it must step up and share responsibility for contributing to the wellbeing of the global community it serves. There will be no economy to serve on a dead planet.

Elsewhere in the commercial world global businesses are exploring the fertile grounds of integrative, whole-system design, win-win-win solutions that drive economic, ecological and cultural regeneration.

Let’s take a glance at the rapid emergence of offshore wind energy. 20 years ago, the first modern wind turbines were considered to be doing well if they delivered 45kw. Less than 10 years ago Orsted (formerly Dong) energy were the first to install a 3.6 MW offshore wind turbine. This year at the Burbo Bank Extension near Liverpool, UK they installed a fleet of 8.0 MW turbines, the world’s largest wind turbines. The speed of innovation, the fruitful cross-industry collaboration, the economic benefits for all participants (and their families and communities) in the project represent a fine case study for shipping. A few years ago these great, energy producing machines were but a twinkle in an innovator’s eye and those pioneers are now multi-millionaires. Just this week that radical environmentalist institute the global investment bank Lazard reports: “In some scenarios the full life-cycle costs of building and operating renewables-based projects have dropped below the operating costs alone of conventional generation technologies such as coal or nuclear.

“This is expected to lead to ongoing and significant deployment of alternative energy capacity.”

Just as these mighty wind turbines aren’t 18th century flour mills, nor will 21st century wind powered ships be the Cutty Sark. Wind energy is the cheapest form of energy on the market. Wind is free-at-the-point of use, it can be exclusively and abundantly available to shipping de-coupling vessels somewhat from bunker constraints. Modern materials and digital systems mean wind devices on ships can be managed by existing crew numbers. In combination with super-efficient, bio-fuelled engines sailing hybrid vessels can be 100% renewable powered today, and perform at operating speeds that allow them to slot straight in to existing just-in-time logistics systems.

Of course, this is a solution suitable only for certain ship types. Not all.

But there are multiple technology opportunities available for the heterogenous fleet to make decarbonisation both possible and profitable. It’s complicated for sure but in that complexity lies opportunity.

Some ship types are inherently easier to decarbonise. By getting on with working out how to make these ‘low-hanging fruit’ zero-emission in the near future, we buy time for the thornier challenges in the global fleet.

The savvy commercial strategists know this, they know it’s time to act. We just need to figure out how.

Which is exactly why at COP23 I’m proud to be part of the organising group bringing together forward-thinking shipping people from every part of the maritime sector to an event called Ambition 1.5oC: Global Shipping’s Action Plan. This industry-led summit will learn from other commercial sectors about how they successfully decarbonised, we will be inspired to look more deeply at new technologies and to fit the best near-market solutions to the most appropriate ship types, and, critically, we going to try and work out quite what’s stopping us embracing this potentially highly lucrative global challenge – and we’re going to work together to find solutions.

Navigating a drua through a storm is a highly complex challenge but since life itself depends on it the crew just gets stuck in, draws on cumulative and various experiences to figure out a way. That’s what our event is about.


  1. At this point, I feel that “Le Radeau de la “Meduse”” might make a more fitting illustration.

  2. Unfortunately I have to agree with Andrew. It is most chilling when the relatively small gains made over the years are under threat from buffoons in high places (am I allowed to use these words on Splash?). It is mind-boggling!

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