Shipping needs to be more proactive and transparent about its safety concerns so that we can maintain public trust in our industry and retain our autonomy
The start of the year is when many people make new year’s resolutions to improve their lives, often linked to personal goals such as exercising more, eating better, or even being kinder to their fellow human beings. For the shipping community, the start of this year brings our resolution to do better about our impact on the environment in the form of the global sulphur cap, which came into force on 1 January and will see sulphur emissions from more than 70,000 ships capped at 0.5%.
This regulation has been a long time coming, given that it was being discussed after the introduction of Emission Control Areas (ECAs) in 2013 and the 2020 deadline has been fixed since October 2016 when parties to MARPOL Annex VI agreed to it. While there are concerns from various groups about the availability of low-sulphur fuels and higher operating costs, the IMO has been extremely clear that this date is fixed in stone. Instead, it asserted that Member States would need to work in the relevant IMO technical bodies to deal with issues around consistent implementation.
However, the pushback from the industry continues as the scale of the transition becomes more evident. In November 2019, Greece’s shipping minister Ioannis Plakiotakis urged the IMO to delay the implementation of the sulphur cap, citing safety concerns such as fatal accidents or loss of power in addition to warning of possible disruptions to global trade. While these concerns are valid, the fact of the matter is that the time to highlight these issues was when these discussions began, so that the responsible parties could factor them in. We have precedent set on a smaller scale when the industry switched to low-sulphur fuels for specific ECAs, during which time ship operators had to ensure that crew and equipment were prepared for the transition.
At this late stage, coming into force a little over a month away when the minister delivered the call to action, any backtracking on the matter would not only be legally problematic but also be seen as a sign of incompetence at best, and an attempt to derail legal process for commercial benefit at worst.
One also needs to factor in the public attention that shipping emissions have received over the past few years, creating the possibility for more political pressure to draw up regional regulation to restrict emissions. Particularly, since a study submitted to IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee in 2016 by Finland showed that without the global sulphur cap, air pollution from ships could contribute to more than 570,000 additional premature deaths worldwide between 2020 and 2025.
The shipping industry must show its willingness to take responsible actions over sulphur emissions that are safe and environmentally friendly if we want to retain our autonomy for the larger issue of decarbonisation. More attention will be turned on shipping and its emissions by the public and we must be prepared to have solid solutions and answers prepared. Importantly, safety must be front and centre of these discussions, so that we can defend our decisions when we are accused of putting company bottom lines ahead of the global population.
In fact, our new year’s resolution should be to change the way we talk about safety, making this a proactive narrative rather than one that views it as a cost factor (only focusing on the financial, legal or downtime implications of an incident). Without a switch in our approach to one that garners public trust in our industry’s ability to regulate itself, we will inevitably find ourselves with a blackout of support and adrift in harsh conditions in an uncaring world.