‘We really, really do not have much time left’

With the relaunch of the Splash website we asked some shipping luminaries to pen their thoughts on how our industry might change after Covid-19. Today sees our own chief opinion writer, Andrew Craig-Bennett, tackle the question with a strong focus on the road towards zero emissions. 

The sixth satire of Juvenal is 695 lines of Latin poetry devoted to advanced misogyny. But that’s not what I am going to talk about here.  The bit we all know is, “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – “Who will guard the guards themselves?”

Last week the freight and the S&P markets got bored with Covid-19. I said in April that I thought that trade would bounce back, and that in a few years’ time we will have forgotten all about this plague just as we have wiped all the others from our collective memories. I still think that, but now I’ve got some evidence. This is pretty good news if you are in tankers, which haven’t really had a problem, or in dry bulk, where things are looking increasingly cheerful, and even in the boxboat business, where things have been a bit glum, things have turned round in the past week.

The fuel cell is, like the Brazilian economy, eternally the Next Big Thing

It’s much less good news if you are stuck onboard, or perhaps worse, stuck ashore, wearing out your welcome in the arms of your family and not getting paid, or worse still, one of the very many Filipino cruiseship staff who, thanks to the customary efficiency of the Philippines government, have had your test results lost, or have not even been tested yet, and are really, really tired of seeing Manila Bay.

Friends at sea have asked me to mention the gradual erosion of professionalism, as the morale of people who should have been home months ago declines, and silly little accidents happen more often. I can think of a couple of shipmanagement companies who really want to sack a few people who have shown themselves not fit to be at sea, but who cannot, because they cannot change crewmembers at all.

Added to which is the sneaky thought – amongst those onboard who are not yet due for relief – “What if one of the joining crew members has Covid-19 and brings it on board?”

At least we are not in the airline business. Be that as it may, the Covid-19 outbreak has shown that very many, indeed most, of the world’s nation state governments are simply incapable of dealing with a serious global problem. You have probably seen the cartoon of three Hokusai-type waves, each bigger than the last, with the first one labelled “Covid-19” and the monster in the distance labelled “Global warming”.

But you knew this. What you also know is that there is some jolly cheap oil around for the moment, and perhaps the oil refiners have been able to improve the shining hour and expand their capacity to produce low sulphur heavy fuel oil.

Which leads me back to the trillion-dollar question – how does merchant shipping go carbon-free? And before 2050.

Starting with the easy stuff, not through any of the silly schemes whereby someone somewhere promises to get someone else to plant a tree. And not using methane as a fuel, either. Methane is roughly 28 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, although it ‘only’ hangs around for eight to 12 years. One of the figures that the methane enthusiasts are notably coy about is the ‘by-pass rate’ for unburned methane in a large diesel engine, but one hears figures of perhaps 6%. If we are optimistic and call that 4%, or even t3%, we are still doing more damage, burning LNG, than we are when we burn heavy fuel oil, because the C in the CH4 that does get burned still turns into CO2, as well as the CH4 that doesn’t get burned, and of course the stuff will leak.

Being a bit more serious, we can all slow down a bit more, and we can contemplate hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water using all that wind and solar power that will eventually get made when we don’t want to use it for other things, like charging car batteries. We can carry hydrogen onboard ship most conveniently in the form of ammonia. The fuel cell is, like the Brazilian economy, eternally the Next Big Thing, but if we burn hydrogen in a diesel engine, we get water just the same.

Then there is, for big ships, the possibility of nuclear power, for small ships on short routes, and harbour tugs, and suchlike, batteries, and before we write off the sailing ship as a complete absurdity, we might glance briefly at some interesting big yachts, and remember that the biggest conventional square rigger ever built was launched not so very long ago and is in service as a cruiseship, with a deck crew of, I understand, 20. As usual in our industry, the really ‘fun’ question, “How do we do that?” isn’t the really important question, which is “How do we make a good margin doing that?” and the standard answer is, “It doesn’t matter what it costs to do that, as long as the playing field is level”. That is easy to say, but it is going to cost ever so much  more to propel a ship in the zero emissions world than it does now.

The levelling of the playing field is the great question, as it has been for, roughly, the last half century, during which time we have, all of us, got a bit better at it, but we haven’t thought about a level playing field for zero emissions. People are going to cheat. People always cheat. And there is going to be an awful lot of money to be made by cheating.

Approximately nobody in shipping ever went to sea or into a shore job because shipping is a highly regulated, rigidly disciplined business

What this boils down to is in order to stop wrecking the planet, ships will have to be regulated far more intensely than any of us can yet imagine, and that in turn means no more deals in the corridors of the International Maritime Organization, no more slipping a bung to someone in a port office, no more pulling a fast one on the owners or on the charterers, in fact no more Freedom of the Seas. No more doing your own thing. At the very least, shipping is going to look rather like aviation. It may well look more like ‘1984’. Which raises another question – who will want to work in shipping, ashore or afloat, under those conditions? Approximately nobody in shipping ever went to sea or into a shore job because shipping is a highly regulated, rigidly disciplined business. The Phoenicians didn’t. The Polynesians didn’t.  Zheng He didn’t. Chaucer’s ‘Shipman’ didn’t. Nobody ever did. Not even the regulators themselves (see Juvenal, above, and think about IACS and open registers).

Some rather interesting questions offer themselves. Will old bangers propelled by infernal combustion of oil be ‘grandfathered’? How will new zero emissions ships be able to compete with them? Do we tax the old ladies? If so, how?

The year 2050 is 30 years away. A class of ships whose construction I had a hand in, 30 years ago, are getting turned into rebars as I type this. They still look quite up to date. We really, really do not have much time left. 


Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. There is no time left and yes we tax them. North of $100 per tonne carbon by 2030. And with the majority of revenue raised going directly to the loss and damage of the climate most vulnerable.

  2. An aerial view of Detroit’s industrial area makes me not to share this irrational fascination for the disappearance of combustion.

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