More slow steaming is a backwards step for carbon reduction

Bob Sanguinetti, CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping

It’s impossible to open a newspaper without reading the warnings of climate activists around the world.  ‘Wake up’, we are told.  ‘Listen to the science, this is an impending catastrophe’.

And they are right.  Yes the messengers can sometimes make us roll our eyes – campaigners who glue themselves to buses, or celebrities who fly first class from Los Angeles to tell us how damaging flying is can be somewhat tiresome.  But never mind the messenger, hear the message.  Climate change is real.

Shipping is the servant of global trade – which itself is arguably the greatest force for good ever created. The more the world trades, the more prosperity spreads and the more extreme poverty declines.   Most people get the link, but quite rightly they demand we do it in an environmentally responsible way.  Shipping emits 2.5% of all global carbon emissions, and it is just too high.

It is why the shipping industry has agreed to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50%, but in reality we are already striving to go much, much further.  Battery powered ships are operating around the UK and elsewhere.  Huge investment is being made in emission-free technology such as hydrogen, and even sails are set for a comeback.  Hydrodynamics have improved and engines are getting ever more efficient.  This is proof of a determination among global shipowners to put their money where their mouths are.

What never gets discussed in the political debate about climate change, however, is just how difficult decarbonising is.  There is a reason why political campaigners choose to become campaigners, and not engineers or scientists.  Wagging the finger is easy, the actual graft of designing a powerful engine that can move 20,000 containers across the ocean without releasing emissions is hard. 

This is why good regulation can spur innovation.  But the polarised political environment, where there must always be a ‘baddie’, can result in a temptation within the business community to find solutions that appear progressive, that generate good headlines and allow us to say we are taking action – even if they make little difference in the long term. 

This week, the industry’s global regulator, the United Nations’ International Maritime Organisation, is meeting in London to discuss new proposals by French and Greek authorities to introduce a speed limit on international shipping.  Such limits will, they argue, reduce carbon emissions.  The idea has already generated positive headlines and, in an effort to be as zeitgeisty as possible, a young climate activist is delivering a speech to support the proposals. 

But there is not a shred of evidence that reducing speed will have a significant impact on emissions.  Shipping has been ‘slow steaming’ for years and its carbon output hasn’t collapsed.  But, were the proposals to be accepted, it would provide a disincentive to continued investment in the research, development, engineering and manufacturing necessary to decarbonise.  Even though shipowners are spending billions, these proposals would say ‘you can carry on using heavy fuel oil but just go a little slower’.

It won’t wash.  The industry is committed to reducing its carbon emissions by investing heavily in new technology.  Our regulator, made up of international governments, must not send out the message that there are easier and cheaper alternatives in the short or the long term – particularly when there is no evidence those alternatives will work.

For all the protests, the UK is a leader in carbon reduction.  We are decarbonising at a faster rate than any other major economy.  This has been achieved not by taking the easy route – but through investment and strategic commitment.  Shipping, that most global of industries, wants to follow its lead.  Global regulation should support, not disincentivise that ambition.


For more information contact:

Bob Sanguinetti

Chief Executive

020 7417 2842