UK Government needs to step-up innovation support for green shipping

  • Caroline Pradier

    Caroline Pradier

    Programme Manager

    View profile

21 Dec 2020

Global Britain should prioritise innovation in technology that can give our maritime heritage the green revival our planet needs.

The IMO’s recent MEPC meeting, should have been the opportunity to push forward the industry’s commitment to higher environmental standards. But instead, the new regulations have been met with criticism from climate activists – they claim that the new measures simply don’t go far enough and provide no incentive for the shipping sector to innovate for change. 

Whilst statistically, shipping might be the least environmentally damaging mode of transport (when taking into account its productive value), it still contributes around 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions a year. This is generating more emissions than any single EU country. Nonetheless, corporate complacency about the negative environmental impact on marine life and air quality is not an option. 

As global Britain looks to strengthen international trade ties with countries beyond the EU and revive its maritime heritage (both merchant and military), it will be vitally important that we have logistic and transport strategies to make global trade possible without causing more damage to the environment. But the regulations agreed this week mean that the industry can continue the status quo for another three years. 

If the Government is serious about reducing emissions and pollution from shipping and the Net Zero targets set out in its 10 point plan for the Green Industrial Revolution (where is has allocated a relatively modest £20m for the issue), Britain must look at its own support for ‘Green Shipping’ initiatives that have the potential to enable the industry to exceed international rules.  +

The UK and the EU have already agreed to halve greenhouse gas emissions from the shipping industry by 2050 compared with 2008 levels, in accordance with the IMO Greenhouse Gas Strategy. This policy is a welcome but challenging piece of news that will have a transformative effect on the shipping industry worldwide. Britain has already taken concrete steps towards this through the DfT’s Maritime 2050 strategy and its commitment to innovation in the sector. Funding has subsequently followed, with the creation of the Maritime Autonomy Regulation Lab (MARLab) and a Clean Maritime Innovation funding call.

Whilst these plans to support innovation are good news, it alone won’t be enough. Climate action is urgent and we need to throw every innovation tool in the box at making shipping cleaner and greener, we can’t rely on just one source of funding to transform an industry.

Challenges on smart green shipping

Government support will be crucial in enabling transformation. The stakes are high – if the industry moves too slowly there’s a risk that things will get much, much worse. According to the 3rd IMO Greenhouse Gas study, shipping emissions could, under a business-as-usual scenario, increase between 50% and 250% by 2050.

In the interim cutting shipping speeds and looking at wind power offer some improvements, but these have been described as ‘cosmetic’ – we really need to spark interest in new technology to fill the gap between these relatively small interim gains and the transformation that would occur if the industry moved towards alternative fuels such as hydrogen or ammonia, which is still potentially a decade away. 

The British shipping industry needs the Government to help signpost the industry as a centre of radical innovation with lucrative opportunities for engineers and inventors. We believe that a government-funded challenge prize on smart green shipping could provide the incentive needed for technologists to turn their sights towards highly innovative solutions that have the potential to bring about radical-change for the industry. 

One of the UK’s key strengths is in small hardware and communications companies – a challenge prize could encourage these companies to consider the important role that they could play in collecting and analysing data in the maritime industry. We could ask the UK’s innovative SMEs to test out solutions for more efficient handling and routing of freight at the anticipated new Freeports (due to be announced in Spring 2021) – rewarding the innovation that is most effective at cutting costs and carbon emissions.

The port of Rotterdam has already experimented with a smart port system, with sensors providing information on available docks, flows of goods and local weather. A British challenge prize could build on these technological advancements, making shipping more intelligent and responsive, delivering cost-saving efficiencies and environmental benefits. 

Change won’t happen on its own. We need incentives and to create occasions to bring people together to tackle the challenges we face. To truly turbocharge the British economy through innovation in our trading, logistics and national supply chain, we need equally innovative approaches, especially catalysts that ramp up innovation quickly. 

The Government should, as part of its stated commitment to maritime sustainability, back a series of high impact challenge prizes, that can get off the ground quickly, use British ports as live test beds and that match the scale and aspiration of its 2050 Net Zero agenda. This will spur on and reward innovation in green shipping, establishing the British maritime sector as global leaders in the mission to decarbonise marine transport, and accelerate the green recovery for the whole of Britain. The IMO’s targets won’t bring about the change the world needs – brilliant innovation can. There’s no time to waste.

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