Is Macron defending Paris by attacking shipping?

Malcolm Latarche

04 September 2019

It is often said that attack is the best form of defence and that may well be what French President Emmanuel Macron had in mind at the recent G7 summit when calling for shipping to adopt slow steaming to protect the climate.

This was not the first time that France has proposed this strategy be made mandatory as it did the same thing in April this year in advance of MEPC and received the support of over 100 shipping companies on that occasion. How much of that support was really down to a desire for slow steaming for environmental reasons and how much aimed at clipping the wings of ship operators who have opted for scrubbers to meet 2020 and who will be able to run as fast as they wish burning cheap HFO while others are forced to fuel their ships with expensive distillates is debateable, but it was voided nonetheless.

Macron shipping

While there may have been some support for France’s idea in advance of MEPC, most of it came from a predictable corps of EU member states but was not reciprocated by the industry at large and – more importantly – other IMO member states.

With an impending reduction in world trade forecast, there may be a case for some ship operators to consider slow steaming as a means of taking some capacity out of the market and furthermore it may well come as a relief if compliant fuels needed to meet the looming 2020 SOx rules prove to be more expensive than thought. However, historically slow steaming has not been employed for very long periods purely because the customers of world shipping have regularly demonstrated that they do not want it.

Macron has been more fortunate than many national leaders not least because of some recent developments involving French shipping companies. CMA CGM has made a statement by adopting LNG as its fuel of choice for newbuildings and smaller companies such as Neoline with its planned sail assisted Trans-Atlantic liner service have added to France’s green image.

That said, one has to wonder how the future of LNG as a marine fuel will play out. In May this year, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US showed that concentrations of atmospheric methane surged last year and accounted for about a sixth of the atmosphere’s capacity to trap heat. No doubt some of this surge might be attributed to the growing use of LNG as a marine fuel because of the issue of methane slip. But it could be argued that since the number of LNG-fuelled ships is still quite small, the impact of any methane slip from ships’ engines would really be almost immeasurable.

One reason why Macron, above all other national leaders is attacking shipping could be because of the increasingly tarnished image of the Paris Agreement. Hailed as the breakthrough moment after so many failed COP conferences, the Paris Agreement came into being before Macron was elected as French President. However it has suffered numerous setbacks since it was formulated in 2015 and became effective a little under three years ago in November 2016.

Since then, the US has pulled out and most other countries have not only failed to meet their voluntary targets but have taken actions that make meeting them any time soon even less likely. In Europe, car makers are having particular problems bringing down CO2 emissions in time to meet 2021 targets and the campaign against diesel engines has actually caused emissions to rise as people switch to petrol engines that may emit less NOx but increase CO2 emissions. Elsewhere in the world, Australia has had an election where the party advocating green policies was soundly beaten despite having been predicted to win.

Shipping is actually benefitting from some of these movements that are undermining the Paris Agreement as record quantities of coal are being shipped around the globe. Our industry does not drive these developments but merely allows the policies of governments keen to produce more power to modernise their countries to be achieved more easily. Those governments will not take kindly to any attempts from whatever quarter that may cause them problems in meeting their own aims.

Macron himself has in the eyes of some undermined the Paris Agreement.