October 21, 2015

Sniping at the holy cow

The Clean Shipping Coalition’s scathing rebuttal to the IMO’s outgoing Secretary General Koji Sekimizu’s statement is important not just because CSC-a coalition of mainly European environmental NGOs focused on shipping- has consultative status at the IMO.

The gist of Sekimizu’s original statement was this- that the IMO is the only place to discuss ship emissions, and that individual governments should stay out and not be tempted to legislate. That the IMO had done a stellar job so far, that it was a unique international organisation addressing emissions, and that “nothing similar exists for any other industry or business sector”.

He had left himself and the industry some wiggle room though, by saying that shipping emissions may actually rise as demand grows even as “emissions per ship will be greatly reduced under established IMO measures.” 

This has enraged the IMO’s critics. In its surprisingly harsh reaction, the CSC said that the IMO had failed to ‘grasp the nettle’ over ship GHG emissions, that it needed ‘careful guidance’ and that Sekimizu’s statement reflected the views of a complacent industry. It accused Sekimizu of making big claims in bad faith. Worse, it stated explicitly that the IMO, left to its own devices, would be unable to show the sort of leadership that the industry needed to tackle climate change. 

The CSC was particularly upset at the part of Sekimizu’s statement that spoke of the possibility of an increase in emissions with the growth of trade. “The so-called ‘servant of world trade’ is now also behind even its own customers,” the CSC said, referring to trading blocks and ship registries that have agreed to absolute emission reductions.

The CSC statement was bad enough, but Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands foreign minister- the country has the third biggest ship registry in the world- has added fat to the fire by provocatively calling Sekimizu and the IMO a danger to the planet. Unsurprisingly, Peter Hinchliffe of the International Chamber of Shipping- representing ship operators- has weighed in subtly on the side of the IMO, saying that shipping should not be treated like an OECD industry with regard to climate change issues.

What to make of all this? A simplistic approach to the war of words would be to assume that this is just a turf war, but it is much more than that. The CSC has obliquely accused the IMO of being compromised (“The IMO also needs wise leadership free from the overweening influence of industry and Flags of Convenience”). 

Make no mistake; this is a ‘the emperor has no clothes!’ moment. It threatens the future relevance of the IMO. As environmental devastation because of climate change becomes a closer reality, this war threatens chaos in shipping. I do not say this just because of one statement by one NGO but because this is what I see happening going ahead:

1.      Public pressure to clean up the environment will increase exponentially and shipping is a natural, soft and (arguably) legitimate target.
2.      Like the UN, the IMO will continue to be lambasted for its failure to act, or failure to act expeditiously. Unfairly, often, because the IMO is, after all, just expressing the collective will of its membership.
3.      The IMO’s historical filibustering over critical issues relating to the safety of crews will come back to haunt it. Critics will cite these to chip away at the IMO’s authority to be the final voice on emissions from ships.
4.      Like in the UN, there will be, in the IMO, a rise in instances of subtle and unsubtle corruption or member entities lying to get desired outcomes or taking unilateral action. Policy paralysis will increase, causing, in turn, a greater clamour for oversight on the IMO. 

The thing is this: global shipping needs an IMO or an IMO-like organisation. It is too fragmented, too geographically spread out, too international in its operations, too interlinked and too prone to issues from often competing interests not to need an overarching and international body of some kind.

Nevertheless, I am glad that the IMO is being questioned; there should be no holy cows out there. The simple solution here seems to be to reform the IMO.  The problem is that I fear that- again, like the UN- its daughter organisation is beyond reform too.  

Postscript, October 25, 2015

During the period after submission of this article to print but before its publication, news reports say that members of the European Parliament have called on the European Union and all other countries at this year’s Paris climate summit to ensure a requirement is included for reducing emissions from international shipping and aviation.

Parliamentarians called for emissions reduction targets for both sectors to be set before the end of 2016 by the corresponding UN agencies, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).



October 15, 2015

Not my circus, not my monkeys.

Why does everybody in shipping get so defensive when it is criticised? And why do so few of us get angry when the criticism is unjustified?

The publication of a series of over-the-top New York Times generalised articles on shipping that I wrote about a month ago is a case in point that I will not belabour again. Another episode was a few months earlier, when ‘anti bribery compliance expert’ Trace was widely quoted within the industry and in mainstream media claiming that shipping was the most corrupt industry in the globe.  This was also pure hogwash, but there was hardly any protest by the industry.

Of course, what Trace President Alexandra Wrage was quoted as having said was convoluted- “In many ways, the shipping industry is exposed to more levels of corruption than any other industry, as it is a global industry that does not have a mature anti-corruption compliance culture,” she reportedly said- but the headlines, not rebutted by Trace, all read “Global shipping has been announced as the most corrupt industry” or some such. Nobody defended the industry with any vigour, or questioned the findings, or examined Trace’s credibility or some of its leap of faith statements that clearly confused fraud with corruption.

Shipping the most corrupt industry? More corrupt than banking that brought the world’s economic order to its knees in recent years? More corrupt than mining, or oil, or the agricultural monolithic entities that routine bribe politicians, bureaucrats and regulators with billions every year across the world, and who are responsible for both the decimation of the environment and the reduction to penury of entire continents? More corrupt than the defence and allied businesses that control government heads that start- and sustain- wars for profit? More corrupt than construction? More corrupt than many of the biggest names in IT, that have reduced us all to commodities, storing our personal information on servers halfway across the world and selling it to advertisers in one way or another? More corrupt than pharmaceutical giants, hand in glove with national and international regulators who doctor medical data and spread panic- sometimes bribing even WHO officials- to sell pills with hidden side effects that nobody really needed in the first place?

Shipping the most corrupt? Bah. Tell me another story, please, but first tell me what you have been smoking, Trace.

It is not my contention that there is no corruption in shipping; I have spent almost all my working life in the industry in one form or another. I am not even saying that shipping is the cleanest industry- all I am saying is that it far, far from being the most corrupt. And I am saying that shipping, like countries in the politically incorrect Third World, suffers from a perception problem and so gets unnaturally and unnecessarily defensive, like those countries do. They don’t point out, for example, that while corruption is very high in their own countries, big business controls western politicians and systems- and the entities that grade corruption globally, whether they are from the UN or private organisations- to a far greater extent than industry in developing countries. Shipping also needs to fight perceptions with facts. Perception is not always reality, especially when it is doctored, distorted and full of spin.

I think I know why nobody gets angry in shipping at this unfair categorisation. There are two reasons, I think. One is that the industry is controlled by bankers and financiers and the like today, who probably see themselves as investors (they are often speculators, though) and who have no emotional attachment to the industry. The old timers in the industry- whether traditional shipowners or administrators- are heavily outnumbered. And two, much of the operational part of the industry- studded with ex-seamen- has willingly allowed itself to be reduced; they have become accountants. Like with many who sail today, most ashore, I can see, do not feel a sense of belonging with the industry; they have a ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’ attitude towards shipping. 

Pride in the profession has gone out the window. Small wonder, then, that shipping, secretive by nature and by nature of business both, is easy to bad-mouth. It is left defenceless, its flanks exposed to anybody who wants to snipe at it. And that is a shame.