EDITORIAL | Clean up or be cleaned out

Much of the developed world, even such recalcitrant nations as Australia, Japan and the United States, has now adopted the increasingly widespread fear of global warming.Whether or not you accept the reality of global warming on a scientific basis, it is now well and truly with us as a political reality. When such previous “neanderthals” as George W. Bush and John Howard publicly proclaim the threat, you know it has political clout.

Recently, and mostly justifiably, the shipping industry has begun to be singled out as a major contributor to air pollution and thus global warming. It is not as obvious a polluter as the airline industry but the world is waking up.

From my beach house I look over Bass Strait. It is close to the entrance to Port Phillip which leads on to the busy – by Australian standards – Port of Melbourne. Some of the black smoke and soot I see issuing forth from container ships is quite hideous. On a still day a pool of black spreads out above the horizon for miles around.

The worst offenders appear to be ageing middle sized container ships, although most classes of ships are guilty of polluting to some degree. I note also that some of the best known owners are responsible for some of the smokiest ships.

I am very well aware that the industry has been steadily cleaning up its act over the last 25 years. I know for example, that MARPOL is applied both intensively and extensively and that Intertanko and BIMCO have both done intensive and extensive work to encourage their members to reduce if not eliminate, all forms of pollution from their ships. Unfortunately, not all ship owners are members of those organisations. Even if they are, they do not always comply scrupulously with their recommendations.

I know too that engine manufacturers have made enormous strides in improving the efficiency of their products. These have been in the form of both reducing polluting emissions and fuel consumption.

The industry has achieved a great deal, but so too have other industries. In the minds of the public, particularly the educated, articulate middle classes, such improvements are never enough. They want perfection, utopia perhaps. They don’t really consider the costs of attaining such objectives.

So, my solution is to let the consumer pay. If it will add, say, ten per cent to the cost of running a ship by reducing emissions to utopian levels, let us increase freight rates by say, twelve per cent. That after all, will only make a microscopic difference to the price of the consumer’s car, refrigerator, sofa or petrol.

As I suggested last month in my discussion of the problem of recruiting seagoing personnel, the industry is going to have to pay more. So, in turn, will the ultimate consumer of the shipped product. If the world expects clean seas and clean air and competently run ships it must expect to pay for them.

Realistically, though, calculated from the point of view of the ultimate consumer of the shipped product, the additional cost will not be significant.

Shipowners would do well to remember that instead of cutting their competitors’ throats or succumbing to the whining of freight forwarders, they should do what the airlines do. That is, increase prices across the board to cover such externally imposed costs.

The important thing, though, is to be immediately pro active on this issue. If the industry does not do something soon and, importantly, be seen to be doing something, it will be forced to do so, by governments. That will make the whole process more difficult and more expensive.

As with the increasing costs of sea going personnel, the best time to move and improve is in the middle of a boom. That is where we are right now.

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.