Port cities seek strategy for clean, connected maritime sector

January 21, 2020

The shipping industry is focussing more and more on pollution control and environmental performance in a bid to comply with sector regulation and international rules. But the pressure to improve its sustainability is not just coming from the lawmakers.

Ships and ports have a symbiotic relationship and port cities are beginning to wake up to the fact that their future prosperity relies on better integration between the port, its customers and the wider community.

This is already being evidenced in work done by ports to improve scheduling and arrivals to minimise waste and waiting times. For shipping though, the changes could be more profound, as cities push to change the relationship between ships and harbours.

A handful of key maritime cities are in the process of forming SEA20, a network of cities to lead sustainable maritime development and become the urban voice towards international regulators.

A new study commissioned by the group has found that rapid urbanisation and environmental challenges within cities has created an urgent need for local authorities, academia and the industry to jointly tackle emissions while also cultivating opportunities that shipping holds for port communities.

International collaboration between maritime cities is a political necessity to make shipping more connected and sustainable the report concludes. Creating an environmentally-friendly maritime infrastructure will in turn become a critical interest for civic leaders.

Maritime infrastructure is a major factor in urban planning but across the world the process has been subject to varying degrees of control, zoning, environmental protection and integration.

It’s not uncommon to visit relatively small port towns whose inhabitants complain of dust and noise (not to mention pollution from vessels) but to hear advocates point out that the town owes its existence to deepwater or sheltered anchorage.

The study finds that while the desire for integration between port and city often exists, lack of communication and collaboration between key maritime players hampers progress, at a time when more action is needed to combat climate change.

The initiative is pushing to draft principles that lay out its stated ambitions and hopes to present first drafts later this year. Ports including Helsinki, Vaasa, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Washington, Trieste and Genoa and Lulea have signed up to SEA20 with other cities in the process of joining.

Contributors to the study cited data sharing as an example that could increase efficiency, a practice widely adopted in the logistics industry but less exploited in maritime due to the split incentives at play.

“There is a problem of trust in the maritime ecosystem, as different players have different benefits,” Xiangming Zeng, associate professor at the Shanghai Maritime University, wrote in the study. “The authorities look at issues from their point of view, the industry has its own angle and so on. But how to build trust?”

From a technological perspective, many solutions already exist, but there is a lack of legislation and incentives for accelerated change, according to interviewees in the study. Another key finding is the need for wider public interest and pressure on the industry and its decision-makers, an issue we wrote about last year.

“The maritime industry has enormous and largely understated opportunities for ordinary citizens,” Joshua Berger, maritime sector lead for the Governor of the state of Washington, said. “This is why it is important not only to involve diverse communities planning for maritime, but to draw on their energy as agents of change, key beneficiaries and individuals who care about a sustainable future.”

There is consensus among SEA20 members that the need to address these concerns extends beyond technological questions. The study contends that since the oceans are also the Earth’s largest natural ecosystem, sustainability is contingent upon their preservation and political weight is needed now to develop and deploy effective solutions.

Shared needs across all maritime cities, such as mixing the maritime work force with urban innovators and streamlining decision-making, could become common ground for a global push, Sea20 believes. Innovation undertaken jointly between shipping and ports could potentially see all stakeholders invested in more sustainable development across the sector.

The study also suggests that standardisation is the key to developing a set of solutions focussed on the long term and that effective technologies and strategies must be shared among ports and cities to make progress.

“The key to speeding up transformation is simple: inject new thinking, talent, and political will. Cities have the capability to bring all of these to the table and we believe it is their responsibility, and in their interest, to do so. As the emerging powerhouses of global political influence, maritime cities are in the perfect position to do so and can wield influence towards international regulatory bodies and the industry itself,” said Risto E.J. Penttilä, CEO of Nordic West Office and coordinator of the SEA20 network.

“Cities have the capability to bring all of these to the table and we believe it is their responsibility, and in their interest, to do so,” Penttilä added. “As the emerging powerhouses of global political influence, maritime cities are in the perfect position to do so and can wield influence toward international regulatory bodies and the industry itself.”

That statement might give some comfort for shipowners already bending under the impact of IMO2020 and bracing themselves for the as yet unconfirmed requirements of the IMO’s carbon intensity reduction targets. It might also be cold comfort. As will be obvious to regular readers, climate change is also a commercial issue, in that there will be winners and losers, costs and benefits.

A network of ports with common environmental goals is easy to construct in principle. Building the same consensus among shipowners – that they share a collective future that will require collaboration, sharing and integration – could be a much harder sell.