Port states need a global regulator

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 25 January 2019


It has long been one of my hobbyhorses that there is no equivalent of IMO for port states. Without one, shipping lacks a lot of vital support facilities while planning for future trends in global trade is uncoordinated and haphazard.

I have been prompted to saddle up for another ride by three events I have attended in the past couple of weeks, which I’ll come to in a moment, but first I’ll remind you that IMO is an organisation of flag states but some of its conventions require shoreside action. MARPOL, for example, with its requirements for waste reception facilities and the BWMC, which has Guidelines for sediment reception facilities.

Rotterdam Port Intermodal Aug 2011 Gpg Pic Cropped

Those guidelines make one of my points. “The guidance is also intended to encourage a worldwide uniform interface between such facilities and the ships,” they say. Those are my italics: there is no IMO mandate to establish a uniform interface.

And the guidelines “are not intended in any way to replace or adversely impact any local or national requirements … concerning the disposal and/or treatment of sediment from ships ballast water tanks.” So local rules trump IMO’s convention requirements.

In short, there are no international requirements or standards against which port states can be measured or challenged.

IMO is doing what it can from a practical point of view and its Global Integrated Ship Information System (GISIS) includes a valuable database of port reception facilities that is accessible by anyone who completes a simple registration. Among other things, it currently lists 571 alleged inadequacies at ports around the world. But where is the organisation that can require port states to bring their facilities up to scratch?

If one existed, I am sure that many of the representatives at its meetings would be the same people who make IMO’s headquarters their second home. So why does it matter that there is no equivalent body?

It matters because, as one IMO delegate who shares my frustrations once put it to me, when they are in London, they vote with their flag state hats on, but as soon as they go home, they often put on their port state hats and the domestic commitments they have just supported are put to one side.

My hobbyhorse was fed some hay at a briefing by the World Maritime University (WMU) and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) on 15 January about a study WMU has published about the future impact of automation on workers across the transport sector.

Because of that broad spectrum, discussion touched not just on shipping but also on road, rail and ports. It prompted WMU’s president, Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, to say that bringing regulation for all the different modes together was a challenge. Aviation has ICAO and international labour laws are coordinated by the ILO, she said. As for IMO, it regulates shipping and ports “somehow fall within it” for “the ship-to-shore part.” But there is nothing specifically to regulate port state responsibilities.

WMU’s president, Dr Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry

There are global port organisations, such as the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), but it is not a regulator, she pointed out. There should be, she said, a “common set of standards so that whatever port operations may be [conducted], their technical standards are universally agreed upon.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Two days later, on 17 January, I took part in the latest of a series of round table events that are organised by a Norwegian PR company but held in London. They bring together executives from diverse companies and members of the specialist media are invited to take part in a stimulating couple of hours of discussion. I later reported on remarks made that day by Martin Stopford, president of Clarkson Research.

But his were not the only thought-provoking comments. Richard Westgarth, head of campaigns for BMT Global, spoke about “the fourth industrial revolution”, as defined by the World Economic Forum. This will involve “shifting the whole way we think about the world we live in.” Among other things, he said, we need to look beyond shipping and reflect on how it relates to ports, on how they will interact with evolving smart cities and how both ports and cities should be incorporated into national infrastructure planning. It is not yet happening, he said, “and that’s a growing problem.”

He said much else besides, which I will cover in a later article, but those brief comments reflect a secondary aspect of my – and Dr Doumbia-Henry’s – concern. In the same way that ports should, like shipping, have a global regulatory umbrella, so they should also become part of a Grand Conversation about national and international logistics.

This cropped up again at the third fascinating event I attended, hosted by class society Bureau Veritas on 22 January. On the face of it, it was simply a briefing about that organisation’s current situation; “there’s no breaking news for you today,” we were told.

Maybe not, but there was sustenance for my steed. One of the speakers, BV’s global technology leader for sustainability Panos Koutsourakis, included a slide that listed incentives offered by four of the many ports that offer financial incentives for ships, based on their Environmental Ship Index (ESI) scores. These are calculated under a scheme run by the World Ports Sustainability Program, which was itself set up in 2017 by IAPH. In all, 56 ports and other organisations have signed up for the ESI scheme, including Rotterdam (main picture) where intermodalism is taken for granted.

The scheme awards points to ships that, for example, use cleaner fuels or new technologies to reduce emissions, but the incentives vary from port to port. Some countries also offer incentives, Panos said, naming Singapore and Sweden in particular.

I welcome these initiatives but I believe it would be better if there were a truly international scheme, with consistent incentives that only a port-based body of IMO’s standing could create.

I asked Panos after his presentation whether he thought an international incentive scheme would be a better solution. “Yes, of course,” he said without hesitation. But when I asked him how that might be done, he paused for thought. He suggested that the Paris agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change might be adjusted. It contains a clause that covers financing, he said, so if that could be changed to bring in incentive schemes, “it might be useful.” A global scheme could encourage shipowners to invest the sums needed to install emissions-reducing technology, he said.

He is right. And this may be the route towards establishing the body that I believe is needed. Not only would it improve implementation of the port-related requirements from IMO conventions, but it would provide a forum that would drive worldwide planning for interconnected logistics and infrastructure and bring a consistency to emissions-reduction schemes that would give owners and operators the certainty they need to invest.

I am sure I will be riding this hobbyhorse for a long time before that body has been created, but the events I have attended this month have given me hope that I am not alone in this quest. Email me now and say whether you are with me on this journey.

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