Full steam ahead: reflections on eight years in the maritime industry

I left the maritime industry this year for more academic pastures. But over my eight or so years at the leading maritime communications consultancy I had the fortune…

I left the maritime industry this year for more academic pastures. But over my eight or so years at the leading maritime communications consultancy I had the fortune to work and strategise with maritime businesses large and small, start-ups, NGOs and charities spanning more sectors of the industry than I ever knew there were (and not nearly all of them).It was eight years of challenges and tumultuous change for the industry. I began my career just as the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis started to hit shipping and in many ways it’s never truly recovered, although many including Martin Stopford believe this just to be an extension of shipping’s usual boom and bust cycle rather than a systematic problem. But if I only had a pound for every article I read about the “first green shoots of recovery”.

From my perspective, however, what I have seen is an industry trying to regain its previous position as the ground constantly shifts beneath it. This appears to be changing though, it seems the industry is starting to rethink this approach and rather than keep trying to return to where it was, it’s beginning to build a new paradigm of what the maritime economy can be.

It’s far from clear or complete yet. But if I’ve learned anything from my stint in the maritime it’s that turning this ship doesn’t take quite as long as the industry lets on. Attitudes to communication, to digitalisation, to carbon emissions, to automation have all turned around, seemingly on a dime. Yes it might have taken years to plant the seeds that lead to change, but once the tipping point is reached the new course is set fast.

Tackling climate change is only one example of this, but it’s such a clear and stark example I can’t help repeating it. Eight years ago (almost to the day) I worked on my first big climate campaign in shipping, launching ShippingEfficiency.org to help charterers choose more efficient ships through a simple like-for-like comparison. The idea was to help charterers cut costs by using less fuel so they’d prefer more efficient ships – nudging market forces into valuing greener ships higher.

The backlash was immense and, from my inexperienced position, baffling! Not the least because all the arguments seemed to be clearly flawed. From the whataboutery – “why are you looking at shipping and not aviation”, to minimising the benefits – “shipping’s already the most efficient form of transport so why should we try to improve”, to some rather anti-competitive thought – “you can’t compare ships to each other because it’s not fair to the one that’s worse”. And that was just for something that promoted reducing carbon emissions a bit, hardly the full decarbonisation that’s being advocated now.

Eight years later (and I’m not claiming causation just noting the huge shift in opinion) the International Chamber of Shipping, the “voice” of ship owners, was calling for legislation to force a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050! The world’s largest container line has pledged to reach net zero by that time. With ship lifespans of 20-25 years, the first zero carbon ships (or retrofittable to be zero carbon) will need to be on the water in the next 7-10 years to make this possible, unless there’s mass sell-off and scrappage planned in 2049.

It was five years ago this month that Rolls-Royce’s first foray into autonomous shipping was announced – and met with either excitement or skepticism depending on who you spoke to. This week Oskar Levandar and his team rode the first dock-to-dock autonomous ferry crossing. Change is happening and it’s happening fast!

Whatever the future may hold for the maritime industry and despite the enduring image of the typical shipping executive – which I once saw Birgit Liodden unflinchingly present with an image of The Simpson’s “Mr Burns” – it’s an industry that has left me no room for pessimism.

The maritime industry has some of the most passionate, innovative and dedicated people I’ve ever met, working tirelessly to overcome everything from regulatory pressures to difficult market conditions. The change they’ve been able to bring in my short tenure in the industry has been inspiring. And if an industry that’s often looked down on as slow or “years behind” is able to achieve the speed of transformation shipping has seen – fixing the rest of the challenges we’re facing as a planet can’t be that hard, right?

Kate O’Connor

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