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How we can shape the future of shipping, today

During last year’s COP26 talks in Glasgow, a maritime-focused side event was held , entitled “Shaping the Future of Shipping.” While certain positives did come out of the gathering, it is difficult not to conclude that an opportunity was missed.

On the positive side, it was pleasing to see that the shipping industry has now agreed to follow the rest of the world in the ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, aligning with United Nations goals. It was also heartening to observe a consensus being reached on the introduction of a carbon levy, something the industry has been talking about for quite a while, which the majority of parties have now rallied behind. This would surely have helped speed the transition towards cleaner fuels, had it been adopted by MEPC 77 back in November, which in many aspects didn’t follow up on the consensus reached at COP 26.

Considering the urgency of the situation and in light of the fact that industry leaders were speaking and attending, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) event did not realise its full potential. Firstly, discussions revolved almost entirely around fuels — an important matter, to be sure, but not the most immediate one. It was acknowledged that more pilots with new fuel types are needed to find the optimal solution for shipping, and that almost all clean fuels will face scalability issues at start due to a lacking global supply infrastructure. Hence, it will take at least 5 to 10 years before the technology, the fuels and the supply chain are mature enough to start reducing shipping emissions. But why are we not considering what we can do today?

Little was said about short-term measures. Some of the most powerful and influential figures in the industry had been gathered together, yet there was little acknowledgement of the urgency of fighting climate change — right here, right now, of taking immediate action. In this context, the industry’s decision-makers appear to be overlooking the benefits of digitalisation, which can bring decarbonisation results promptly, whereas any new or alternative fuel developments are years away. Of course, we need to have clean fuels and more efficient vessels. That’s the only way to get to net zero, so we need to work on those challenges. More forethought must be put into our approach to decarbonisation, however, as we currently are not leveraging all technology options available to us.

Sjoerd de Jager

The approach to pilot with different fuel types and vessels, looks a lot like a ‘spray and pray’ strategy, with different industry leaders advocating different fuels. At the conference, various speakers suggested we should experiment with hydrogen, bioethanol, ammonia and other energy sources — that we should try out numerous fuels and build vessels to test them. This is not only a wasteful approach that will incur vast costs. It also disregards the fact that whichever of the fuels emerges as the favourite (or favourites) will need to have international supply infrastructure in place, as well as vessels fitted to run on these fuels

The shipping companies could begin the journey to decarbonisation today, by doing the smaller, existing things available to them, which in the case of the maritime industry, is digitalisation. To give one example of the impact we can have immediately, simply by adopting just-in-time arrivals, a vessel can save about 12 tonnes of bunker fuel per port call, on average.

According to Lord John Browne, ex CEO of BP and Chairman of BeyondNetZero and Windward, via the digitalisation of the shipping industry, there is the potential to swiftly cut 20% to 40% of CO2 emissions. Yes, it’s going to be somewhat complicated — there are numerous stakeholders that will need to collaborate in order for better communication and co-ordination to bring about improved efficiency and as a result, reduced emissions. But it can be done today.

Everyone in attendance at “Shaping the Future of Shipping” was serious about halting climate change. They were genuine in recognising the need to strive for this goal. It was a pity, however, that no young people were included in the conversation. Females were few and far between. Technology companies, digitalisation partners, biofuel providers, academics – all the parties potentially holding the responses to all the questions raised by the panellists were missing. All the right questions were asked, but unfortunately no concrete answers were provided.

Nor were ports properly represented. That group will be instrumental in building a global supply chain for the new fuels, yet they were not given the opportunity to participate in the dialogue. We also failed to hear the ‘voice of the seafarer’, the people on board the vessels who in the future might need to work with autonomous ships, for example, or with ammonia, which is a health hazard. To not include those groups seemed a missed opportunity. If you don’t get the correct parties together, then the outcome will inevitably be inconclusive, and it will be hard to get to the collaborative spirit required.

Apart from the need for greater inclusivity in this sort of discussion, two key conclusions could be drawn. Firstly, as we search for a fuel solution, we must stop the ‘spray and pray’ approach. Let’s not try five or six different fuel types and see what works. Let’s make a good assessment of what particular type of vessel and what type of business or cargo needs what type of energy. Then, let’s design a system where we have a maximum of two viable fuel sources, and focus all our efforts on those two — all the testing, all the infrastructure, all the investment. The industry should start collaborating and come to an agreement on which fuels to use. The fuel of the future is not a competitive advantage, it is the solution required to avoid a climate disaster.

Secondly, instead of focusing purely on fuel, vessels and the future, let’s look at all the tools that are available right now. There are so many different digitalisation tools that organisations in our industry can use to increase efficiency and improve collaboration.

We want to call on the ICS to organise a follow-up event and include in the discussion all the voices that were missed at COP26. Give the floor to parties that could answer the questions that were left open. And we want to invite other digital providers to join us and make our voices heard. Let’s work together and begin making changes — and making a difference — today
Source: By Sjoerd de Jager, Managing Director, PortXchange and Adina Fenton, director of business development, Windward

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