EXPLAINER: New global shipping task-force aims for greener, safer work

by Naimul Karim | @naimonthefield | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 7 December 2021 15:55 GMT

A worker is seen on the bow of a container ship docked inside Botany Bay in Sydney, Australia, October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

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Workers worry that the changes needed to bring the shipping industry in line with global climate goals could make their jobs more dangerous and threaten their incomes

By Naimul Karim

TORONTO, Dec 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The creation of a task-force to help the global shipping sector cut its climate-heating carbon emissions and support millions of workers in the transition to greener ways of working has been hailed as a "landmark" move by industry members.

Representatives of ship-owners, seafarers and the U.N. Global Compact, the world's largest corporate sustainability initiative, agreed at November's U.N. COP26 summit to work on climate goals for shipping and develop new green job skills.

With more than 50,000 vessels, the industry transports about 90% of the world's trade volumes.

As such, it is responsible for nearly the same amount of planet-warming emissions as Germany or Japan, and must do its part to reduce those emissions if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement goals to limit global warming, experts say.

Under the 2015 accord, nearly 200 countries agreed to slash greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperature rise "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times and ideally to 1.5C.

But some workers worry that the changes needed to bring the shipping industry in line with the Paris pact could make their jobs more dangerous and threaten their incomes.

Here's a closer look at how that green transition could happen and the ways it may affect the labour force:

How much carbon does the shipping industry emit?

The world's ships are big consumers of fossil fuels, using at least 4 million barrels of oil a day, equivalent to 4% of global oil production.

The shipping sector, which transports about $7 trillion-worth of goods annually, is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions, or about 0.9 gigatonnes per year, according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

Emissions from shipping - while similar to the aviation industry - are lower than those from road transport and far below some other key industries, such as cement manufacturing which produces more than double the amount.

In 2018, the International Maritime Organisation adopted a strategy to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping by at least half by 2050 from 2008 levels, and to work towards phasing them out as soon as possible this century.

The strategy, due to be revised in 2023, aims to cut the average carbon intensity of international shipping by at least 40% by 2030 through short-term measures including more efficient energy use.

What are more sustainable alternatives?

To wean ships off fossil fuels, researchers are experimenting with low-carbon fuels and technologies.

So far, hydrogen, ammonia, biofuels, wind and electric power are promising, but need investment to produce them at scale.

Alternatives like hydrogen must be generated using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels if they are to have a lower carbon footprint than traditional bunker fuel, according to an October report on sustainable shipping by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

In addition, ammonia and hydrogen have a lower density than oil, requiring ships to consume five times as much by volume. For the entire industry to adopt ammonia as a main fuel, its production would have to triple, an ICS study showed.

The use of batteries to store electricity onboard also poses a logistical challenge, with a typical container vessel needing the power of 10,000 Tesla S85 batteries per day, it added.

What do seafarers say about the green transition?

While labour unions largely support a green transition for the industry, many fear ship-owners will not pay to train workers to adjust to the new systems needed. That raises the risk the cost of reforms will fall on seafarers.

If ships carry larger volumes of fuel, it could also increase health and fire risks for workers.

The ITF believes the industry should draw on knowledge from the world's nearly 2 million seafarers - many of whom come from developing nations and are witnessing the impacts of climate change first-hand - to inform efforts to protect their jobs.

Its October report noted the move from one dominant engine and fuel type to multiple engines and fuels would require "a more multi-skilled workforce".

"Seafarers must be supported through the transition," it added. "Where decarbonisation does lead to ... jobs being displaced, seafarers must be offered the opportunity to retrain for other positions without any loss of pay or job quality".

What will the new task-force focus on?

The "people-centred" task-force launched at the COP26 climate summit aims to "shine a light" on labour issues and collaborate with governments and partners to ensure workers and developing economies are not left behind, the ICS said.

"There is a great deal of interest in the technology and infrastructure needed to decarbonise the shipping sector. However, there is very little focus on the people and economies that will be impacted," the group said in emailed comments.

ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the industry is lagging behind on climate change action because of a collective "wait-and-see attitude".

That explains why it has yet to see system-wide investments in alternative fuel value chains or significant orders for zero-emissions vessels, he said.

From early 2022, the new task-force will drive forward research on fuels to lower emissions and how to provide those, while protecting seafarers' health and safety, Cotton added.

Critically, he said, it will ask the question: "Where do people fit into a future with this fuel or that fuel?".

Read more:

Act swiftly and fairly to ease shift from fossil fuels, say labour experts

EXPLAINER: What is 'net zero' and why does it matter? 

Bangladesh's hazardous shipyards launch race for cleaner, safer future

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