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Decarbonisation requires fresh thinking on safety and sustainability

Safety has played second fiddle to sustainability in shipping’s decarbonisation journey so far. If the pace of progress is to accelerate, industry partners must see safety as the bedrock of the enterprise

SHIPPING’S decarbonisation journey must involve sustainability and safety issues in equal measure, panellists at a round table discussion hosted by Lloyd’s List and sponsored by DNV unanimously agreed.

The coming decade is likely to see a transformation in the way the industry is structured and operates, such that successful companies will embrace transparency and will proactively collaborate with like-minded businesses within the supply chain and external to it.

Further, panellists agreed on the requirement for best practice, covering both successes and failures, to be shared widely to enable both larger and smaller companies to reach sustainable goals.

“For the common goal of improving safety at sea, we must cast aside our competitive instincts and share knowledge and experience on safety performance,” said the DNV chief executive, maritime Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen.

“Making progress in implementing new fuels and technologies, it’s all about people and collaborating as much as possible around sustainability and safety.”

For understandable reasons, shipping has taken an increasingly firmer line on sustainability issues over the past decade, with the COP26 gathering in Glasgow underlining the need for the industry to accelerate towards zero-carbon transportation.

The impact this has made on attitudes to safety — even though it can’t be easily measured — appears to be negative. Panellists were concerned that safety is playing second fiddle to sustainability.


Shipping needs to “up its game” in terms of the safety aspects of decarbonisation, one speaker urged. Others insisted that safety and sustainability were two sides of the same coin, and that compromising on safety would mean compromising on the issue of decarbonisation itself.

One panellist illustrated the point metaphorically: “Regarding alternative fuel, safety should form the base of the pizza, with toppings of sustainability, technology, and cost. If the base of safety isn’t in place, we will have to compromise.”

The pace of progress on the journey to decarbonisation will be too fast for most companies to tackle individually, which means sharing experiences – good and bad – will become paramount. This will require openness and honesty in reporting failures, on the one hand, and an acceptance that growth is often grounded on making mistakes.

“We don’t deny we will make mistakes,” said one speaker. “We need to learn from them.” Another agreed: “Mistakes… are part of continual learning and reflection.”

However, while mistakes today often have commercial consequences — a fact that can lead to near- misses not being reported — all parties in a future venture will be expected to take a mature attitude to mistakes to encourage openness and best practice.

An example of just how quickly the industry can learn from a shared experience of best practice came with the new limit on sulphur content in fuel oil used onboard ships came into force from January 1, 2020. In the years leading up to the implementation of IMO 2020, class societies, engine manufacturers, insurers, the International Maritime Organization, and everyone else involved gave guidelines on compliance. Failures were very swiftly brought back in line.

A similar combination of guidance, collaboration, transparency, and best practice — underpinned by safety — will prove invaluable in helping achieve decarbonisation targets, panellists said.

Speakers also agreed that first movers would play a critical role in dragging the industry beyond its safe space to the realms of the ‘unknown knowns’, where vessel operators seek to collaborate with others that have already tried and tested a fuel or a new technology.

These first movers will be “well looked after, and they will probably be very good at it,” it was suggested. The greater concern will come “when the bulk of the vessels come into the market and move into these new fuels.”

However, another speaker said, “as long as all parties consider each other as partners, rather than suppliers and vendors, and create a safe environment where information can be shared, and if when we fail, we fail fast, people will still be open and encouraging”.

Safety at sea is not all about fuels and technology, most of it comes down to people, and issues such as leadership, care, and wellbeing of seafarers.

That also overlaps with decarbonisation issues. Seafarers should be empowered, this speaker said, because “they hold the key to making decarbonisation safe”.

The scale of the transformation, in Mr Ørbeck-Nilssen’s phrase “a maritime renaissance”, will impact on all aspect of shipping life, its culture, its organisation, and the way in which companies work with partners.

While there was widespread agreement that the bedrock of successful transformation will be safety and the driver will be sustainability, there was a little less optimism about transparency and collaboration. Competition rules might stand in the way of collaboration, going forward, one speaker cautioned.

This tound table discussion which, unusually, involved eight executives from across the maritime spectrum, was encouraged to find so much common ground. However, they were agreed that an increasing trend toward safer shipping shown in recent years is no guarantee of safe and sustainable shipping in future.

“The coming decade will be transformational and inspiring,” Mr Ørbeck-Nilssen concluded, “but it will not be straightforward and it will not be easy.” Success will involve safety and sustainability with equal weight.

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