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Holding back the Doomsday Clock

Posted 11.04.2019
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Maintained since 1947 by members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a non-profit focused on raising awareness about potentially world-ending ramifications of science and technology, the Doomsday Clock is now a much-cited metric for human progress - or the lack thereof - by journalists and broadcasters the world over.

Put simply, the Clock represents a hypothetical global catastrophe as "midnight" and the Bulletin's opinion on how close the world is to a global catastrophe as a number of "minutes" to midnight.

Historically used as a measure of the probability of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 sent the minute hand back to a vast 17 minutes to midnight, reflecting a growing sense of optimism about the future of our species.

The interceding 27 years have not been good for the Clock. Perilously, last year the clock made its closest approach to midnight – at just two minutes – reflecting the failure of world leaders to deal with pressing world threats including climate change. Indeed, in January 2019, the decision was made to hold the clock at this level, reflecting a continued lack of any real movement on these pressing issues.

Given this display of pessimism from the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, perhaps it is contradictory that decarbonisation now seems to be finally emerging as the cause célèbre for the maritime sector. Most major conferences have now made time to discuss profitable decarbonisation on their agendas. Triggered by the IMO laying down of clear targets at MEPC last year – 30% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030 and 50% by 2050 – a smouldering undercurrent of debate now has the prospect of transforming into a real wildfire of change for the sector.

And in the offshore industry, whose fortune is so tied to hydrocarbon extraction, we are seeing signs of a shift too. The growing recognition that it’s okay to admit that fossil fuels will still be useful in transition – as middle ground an opinion as one can conjecture around renewable energy – has emboldened operators (and oil prices and supply/demand equations won’t have hurt either).

But even the most entrenched of oil majors are now thinking about how they can apply themselves to a growing renewables industry; see Statoil’s rebranding to Equinor as evidence. The same goes for suppliers too, most of whom are in luck that many of the same skills and services will be required by a global offshore renewables industry as have been needed by the oil and gas sector for the last 60 years.

It is within this global context of change, across maritime, energy and offshore, that we can examine some recent positive news from the UK about its own energy mix. New figures released at the start of this year show that, in 2018, renewables generated an estimated 33% of the UK’s total electricity generation. Moreover, in combination with nuclear, low-carbon sources contributed 53% of UK generation in 2018, with the share from fossil fuels at its lowest ever.

The extensive analysis, conducted by Carbon Brief, seems so positive that it’s disheartening to see it buried beneath a swathe of bad news.

It’s a truth of the world that ‘everything is okay’ doesn’t form the basis of the most compelling headline. Our perception of the world is therefore appropriately skewed to the negative. Famine, war, disease, loss of life – these stories are easier to film, explain and sell.

So how does this impact the maritime industry? I have written before about how we should be praising shipping’s innovating spirit. And although from within progress can seem slow, glacially so, the fact that shipping hasa decarbonisation pathway in the first place is a fact worth celebrating. Moreover, the growing understanding that it can be achieved profitably – by embracing new technologies and fuel solutions – is an incredibly profound driver of change.

The truth is that we should celebrate all progress being made, on any level, big or small, within industry and society. By every metric, today is a far better time to be living and working than at any point in human history. We also have the means and mechanisms to effect real change like never before.

And yes, the argument about leaders and regulators having to lead the charge is, of course, a valid one. But does inaction on the part of the leader of a country or an organisation give individuals permission to shirk their own responsibilities to sustainability? Clearly not.

I would turn back to Carbon Brief’s research on the UK’s energy mix. An interesting and fundamental point of those findings was that the UK's electricity generation fell to its lowest level since 1994 – smashing the economic orthodoxy that increasing populations require ever-increasing energy demands. Why did this happen? Well, the research says, because of a combination of factors – including regulatory and consumer demand for energy efficiency.

In other words, the decisions of individuals has fundamentally changed the energy mix. So yes, maybe a shipowner being the first mover on a clean technology or alternative fuel doesn’t feel like much when developing economies open ten coal power plants in a week. But, right now, decisions like these – and, importantly, from BLUE’s perspective – publicising and uncoupling them from the negative news cycle – is one of the greatest tools we have to effect real change.

It’s easy in the era of the Brexit and Trump to feel like the world is genuinely on the brink of collapse. But how about another approach? Every day companies are making changes to become more sustainable, more efficient and more profitable. In other words: every day is a good day. Celebrate this, spread the news, and do your part; between us, we might be able to hold back the Doomsday Clock after all.

By Rhys Thomas

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