We’re all in this together

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 03 October 2019


I am going to step in, once again, to the debate about the path to zero-carbon shipping. In particular, who and what do we expect to go ‘carbon-free’? Just shipowners? Just ships? Or shipping-related companies and their offices?

Last week (24 September) we published an item about an initiative launched at the UN Climate Action Summit by the ‘Getting to Zero 2030 Coalition’, an initiative that has emerged from the Global Maritime Forum (GMF) that gathered for the first time in October last year. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Poseidon Principles, which are a set of financing initiatives that also emerged from that event, and the two initiatives share something else in common: they are both built around IMO’s Initial Strategy to cut GHG emissions from shipping.

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But I have noted before that the strategy is only concerned with cutting emissions from ships (you can read the full text here). This leads to the assumption that we will need carbon-free fuels so these latest two initiatives, by clinging to the strategy’s coat tails, do the same. That approach is not enough.

Have a look at the Getting to Zero 2030 Coalition’s ambition statement and scroll down to see the 64 coalition members listed underneath. They are all big names in shipping: major owners and operators, banks, class societies, equipment manufacturers, charterers, engine builders and more: a real cross section. Some of them have issued supportive statements, which were mentioned in last week’s item.

It is easy to sign up to a worthy cause and support reduced emissions from ships, but what are these organisations doing to cut their own emissions? Does membership of the coalition impose any emission-reducing obligations on the class societies, engine builders, banks and the rest of the non-shipowning signatories? No.

I contacted a few of them – and it was just a few, so I am not naming them – and asked what they were doing to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2030 in their own organisations. Would they, for example, look for zero-carbon building methods and materials when they next expand their offices?

I heard back from just three. Two have promised me a considered response and perhaps others will yet get back to me, in which case I will update this item in due course. The third appreciated the distinction I was making and said that it is reducing its own emissions, “but that is not what this initiative is about.” That company does not own or operate ships, its spokesman pointed out, “therefore it is our customers’ emissions that shall fall to zero” and its products and technologies will help them do that.

What is needed is a holistic approach to shipping emissions – whether carbon or GHG – and this coalition is not framed to deliver that. Focusing on the ship addresses just one part of the problem but, worse than that, it actually complicates the search for a solution.

For example, in response to an earlier commentary I wrote about the road to zero carbon, one of the big engine makers drew my attention to the potential of bio fuels and synthetic fuels. “With these fuels we can gradually reduce carbon emissions and, in the case of synthetic fuels, are even able to phase them out completely when produced with green energy.” He is right, but the production methods behind future fuels is not a factor in IMO’s strategy. It should be.

This is not a new argument. What is new is that People Who Matter are getting involved in it. I have great hopes for the GMF – which emerged from the Danish Maritime Forum that took place largely behind closed doors in Copenhagen for a few years – and I believe its participants should encourage the coalition they have created to extend its commitment beyond the confines imposed by IMO’s strategy. IMO’s delegates might then draft something that recognises and rewards industry-wide emissions-reduction strategies.

There are hints of this in the coalition’s statement. While its top-line ambition is “to have commercially viable ZEVs [zero-emission vessels] operating along deep sea trade routes by 2030”, it says that its members “are committed to the decarbonisation of deep-sea shipping and its energy value chains”, which suggests a broader policy is in mind for the future.

It also commits members to “taking action at a company level, as appropriate,” but this is targeted towards “making deep-sea ZEVs and infrastructure/supply chains commercially viable by 2030,” not towards reductions in those companies’ own emissions.

But it is a step in the right direction. If we accept – as I do – that developing zero-carbon ships will be at best difficult and expensive and at worst fanciful, then we can instead invest some of that time, money and effort in reducing emissions across the twin spectrums of well-to-wake and from drawing board to boardroom, rather than specifically from ship exhausts.

• Are you a member of the Getting to Zero 2030 Coalition? What was your motivation for joining and how are you and your company reducing your corporate emissions? Email me with your views now.

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