Maritime shipping is the driving force behind the economy that threatens the climate

Setting sail for climate action - but will it work?

© Christiaan De Beukelaer


Christiaan De Beukelaer was to spend three weeks doing fieldwork aboard an old sailing ship, until suddenly the corona crisis broke out and he was condemned to the sea for months. He wrote down his personal odyssey in Trade Winds, a book that oscillates between an in-depth analysis on modern shipping, climate research and a memoir about life at sea. ‘Shipping allows companies to profit from global inequality,’ he says.

Translation of this article is provided by kompreno, using a combination of machine translation and human correction. More articles from MO* are included in kompreno‘s curation of the finest analysis, opinion & reporting — from all across Europe, translated into your language. Original source.


The global economy is increasingly presented as a virtual network in which information is exchanged at the speed of light, and in which innovation trumps all other factors of production. But the reality is that some ninety per cent of all the goods we use were once transported across seas and oceans, in bulk or in containers, at speeds still expressed in knots rather than nanoseconds.

‘Maritime economy consumes three hundred million tonnes of fossil fuel annually and emits one billion tonnes of CO2, three per cent of global emissions,’ says Christiaan De Beukelaer. De Beukelaer is professor of Culture and Climate at the University of Melbourne (Australia) and began his research on the climate impact of cargo ships in 2017, when the sector had no climate target at all. However, the Kyoto Protocol mandated curbing shipping emissions as early as 1997. De Beukelaer expects a breakthrough this year that could impose truly ambitious targets on shipping. We will expand on this later.

The ship is a metaphor for our existence on earth. ‘We have to take care of it together.’

De Beukelaer landed on the niche of cargo sailing ships during his search for low-carbon alternatives for international shipping. He chatted with everyone from that industry, and his anthropological education drove him to take a trip aboard the Avontuur, a Dutch ship sailing on behalf of a German entrepreneur, loading coffee, cocoa and rum in Latin America to sell truly climate-neutral chocolate and coffee in Europe.

The ‘participatory observation’ aboard a 1920s schooner was to begin on Tenerife and end three weeks later in the French Antilles. But during those weeks the corona crisis broke out, and the crew was not allowed anywhere on shore. The result was a long and gruelling sea voyage along the coasts of Latin and North America and across the North Atlantic. After 150 days and 14,000 nautical miles, the ship was finally able to dock in Hamburg — with 65 tonnes of cargo.

That adventurous venture is the basis of Trade Winds, a book in which De Beukelaer interweaves his insights on shipping, globalisation and climate with stories about life on board.

© Christiaan De Beukelaer


The ship is a closed community in which the 15 people on board are condemned to be with each other and have to survive with the limited supplies in the hold. This experience provides the perfect metaphor for the crisis in which humanity finds itself, says De Beukelaer: ‘We cannot step off planet earth, we know we have to make do with the resources and opportunities the planet offers. We realise that we will only make it if we work together and we are faced with everyone’s talents and shortcomings, with their mistakes and human warmth. This earth is our ship, we must and we can take care of it together.’

Before we can see the ship as a metaphor for our existence on earth, we must first rediscover the ocean. Because ‘we are sea blind,’ you write in Trade Winds.

Christiaan De Beukelaer: Shipping has experienced an enormous increase in scale over the past century, both in total size — there are now more than sixty thousand ships crossing the oceans — and in the capacity of the ships. The Avontuur, the schooner on which I sailed for five months, had a cargo capacity of 65 tonnes, but the container ship HMM Algeciras was shipping 24,000 TEU containers at the time (one TEU container has a volume of 34.51 cubic metres, ed.).

‘42 per cent of all cargo ships are registered in Panama, Liberia or the Marshall Islands. No Belgian minimum wages or Scandinavian environmental laws apply there.’

For those giant ships, huge new ports were built outside the centre of the old port cities. These became inaccessible to non-port workers, and so shipping disappeared from sight. Goods began to be increasingly transported in uniform, closed containers. As a result, unloading and loading also lost its relationship with the stuff we end up buying and using.

Moreover, crews got smaller, while ships got bigger. Fifty years ago, everyone knew someone who worked on the long-haul ships — today they are the great exception, except in the countries that took up the colonial job of laskars, or unskilled ship boys: the Philippines, Ukraine, India, Indonesia, Russia, Romania. Jobs in shipping are disappearing from the West because a ship can fly its own flag and thus choose its own social norms.

That brings us straight to the high seas as a territory beyond national borders and rules, a kind of global commons that mainly benefits large, listed companies.

De Beukelaer: That’s right, for the most part. Shipowners can choose their flag, but that means that the laws of that country apply on board that ship. 42 per cent of all cargo ships are registered in Panama, Liberia or the Marshall Islands. No Belgian minimum wages or Scandinavian environmental laws apply there, but of course they are not completely lawless either.

Besides, international regulations have nevertheless been passed over the years within the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), often after disasters or accidents. These may concern, for example, the discharge of waste water, the treatment of ballast water or the double hull for oil tankers. In other words, these are usually very technical rules.

In any port, the ship can be checked for compliance with those rules. That procedure is not foolproof, but it is realistic. It is not easy even for freebooting countries to evade it, because every country depends on international shipping.

© Christiaan De Beukelaer


Yet you repeatedly write that the IMO is a non-transparent organisation in which big shipping companies often outweigh national interests, and where reporting on negotiations is made almost impossible. No wonder shipping could evade its climate responsibility.

De Beukelaer: That is true, but we are now at a turning point. The maritime economy could well take a huge step forward in the pursuit of climate transition. In July this year, the IMO will discuss and update its underperforming 2018 climate targets. Having attended preparatory meetings at its London headquarters, I think there is a good chance that IMO will agree to reach zero emissions by 2050. If you know that maritime freight now emits a billion tonnes of CO2 a year, that really is a meaningful ambition.

Moreover, they want to introduce a carbon tax for shipping. The Marshall Islands propose to charge $100 per tonne, for the small sums suggested by others do not exert adequate pressure. If that measure materialises, it would be the first time such a carbon price would apply globally, and to the whole industry.

Can the proceeds of such a levy be reinvested by the IMO in shipping, or should the money go into a UN climate fund so that the poorest countries in particular can arm themselves against the effects of climate change?

De Beukelaer: That question is very valid, and one is certainly not out of the woods yet. If the Marshall Islands get it their way, the amount at stake is 100 billion euros initially. The intention is for the revenue to drop quickly, as ships should switch to non-fossil propulsion as soon as possible, but we are still looking at huge sums of money.

‘The main headwind for wind power comes from the fossil industry, as it risks losing a fantastic customer.’

Some want to invest those funds in developing or scaling up non-fossil alternatives. After all, hydrogen, biofuels or synthetic fuels require major infrastructure works to be carried out and there are still big question marks — and so a lot needs to be invested in them.

Representatives of the Least Developed Countries and Small Island States, on the other hand, want the proceeds of the levy to be used to compensate for the increased cost of freight transport and thus of goods shipped. And then there is always the United States. The country can stall any deal because of the constitution, which states that they cannot introduce any tax not approved by their own parliament.

Is the shipping industry ready to accept ambitious climate targets? Or is it lobbying behind closed doors to stop it?

De Beukelaer: Most of the companies and umbrella organisations want clarity. They realise that fossil energy will not remain an option. Therefore, they would prefer to know as soon as possible what targets need to be met by when. Remember that an ocean liner lasts at least 25 years. So to have zero emissions by 2050, there must be no procrastination.

In Trade Winds, in particular, you explore whether propulsion by wind is a possible alternative to today’s heavy fuel oil. Do wind and sails belong in the list of non-fossil alternatives?

De Beukelaer: Wind propulsion does indeed belong in that list, yes. The main headwind for that comes from the fossil industry, as it is in danger of losing a fantastic customer. Not just a high-consumption customer, but one that is willing to use the gooey muck left over after refining and other processing. Heavy fuel oil is relatively cheap, but dirty as anything.

Of course, oil companies know this story is coming to an end, but they are keen to keep making a profit. With the wind in their sails, that’s not going to work, given all the other alternatives. That is why they are pushing hydrogen or synthetic fuel, despite all the difficulties.

© Christiaan De Beukelaer


Shipowners, shipbuilders and crews are also easier to motivate for a transition that technically leaves everything as much as possible as it was. An engine that you can turn off and on is just as easy. Sails, even if they become fully automatic, still require greater adaptation from everyone.

Just calculating the sailing routes becomes more complex: what are the weather forecasts, where can you take maximum advantage of the wind and what do you do if the predicted wind does not blow after all? How do you combine ‘just in time’ deliveries and precise time slots in the Suez or Panama Canal or in ports with the unpredictability of the weather?

Equipping cargo ships with sails today does realise an immediate reduction in fossil fuel emissions, and in the long run the shipping company reduces its dependence on expensive and scarce non-fossil alternatives. The larger the scale of that switch, the faster emissions fall and the more time there is to clean up the last remnants.

Will it happen? Interest in wind propulsion has grown tremendously in the past few years. But within the industry, I hear that people prefer to recoup additional investments within five years. That does set the bar very high.

‘Shipping, with its triangular trade of enslaved people, colonial commodities and finished goods, lies at the heart of today’s global capitalism.’

Meanwhile, are there any examples of wind working on the scale that is needed?

De Beukelaer: Ironically, the Japanese shipping company MOL recently started transporting Australian coal with the Shofu Maru, a ship equipped with a rigid sail (sail made of rigid, non-flexible material, ed.) on the bow. US agribusiness group Cargill is working on a sailing ship to transport grain by developing the technology to scale it up.

Swedish carrier Wallenius is working on a large cargo ship — the Oceanbird — that would be ninety per cent wind-powered. Canopée, a modern French ship with rigid sails, is already starting to sail this year, transporting components of the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 project to French Guiana. And there are a lot of smaller initiatives that really believe in wind propulsion.

Small sailing ships cannot replace the current global merchant fleet, so they will always have minimal impact. On the other hand, you question the size of world trade itself. Is it really necessary to ship that much?

De Beukelaer: That question is certainly not on the IMO’s agenda, although I think it goes to the heart of the challenge. The transport economy sees itself as a secondary demand: cargo ships only sail when there are goods to move. But it is shipping that has made the globalised economy possible, and hence the growth of consumption.

Shipping, with its triangular trade of enslaved people, colonial raw materials and finished goods, lies at the heart of today’s global capitalism. And that is what is causing the climate crisis.

In 2019, about 11 billion tonnes of cargo was transported by ship. According to the OECD, by 2050, this may be two or three times as much. In 1950, 200 kilograms were shipped per person, in 2019 it was 1,400 kilograms. We already cross planetary boundaries too often and too much, while the minimum social needs of a majority are not even guaranteed. This makes one wonder how, with world trade doubling, we would indeed stay within planetary boundaries.

© Christiaan De Beukelaer


That sounds like a plea for an ‘economy of enough’?

De Beukelaer: Surely, I think such a different economy should be taken much more seriously as part of the solution. Even the latest reports from the UN climate panel IPCC now talk about ‘sufficiency policies,’ despite the fact that changing consumer behaviour is not an easy task on a political level.

That is why I do not want to be scathing about small-scale initiatives like the Avontuur, a ship that mainly ships luxury goods like coffee and cocoa for German middle-class consumers. Sail cargo shipping as it exists today is very small-scale and consequently not an alternative for the whole industry, but it does put alternative propulsion on the agenda.

It creates debate simply because these ships are much more visible in urban ports. It also creates a space where producers, carriers and consumers can engage in a conversation about what is needed to tackle the climate crisis.

© Christiaan De Beukelaer


Towards the end of your book, you formulate five concrete steps that shipping can take to quickly and dramatically reduce its climate footprint. These range from very pragmatic ideas (choose the most economical routes, sail at slower speeds) to very radical ones (stop transporting fossil fuels). The latter sounds more like a provocation than a practical proposal.

De Beukelaer: Forty per cent of all cargo shipped consists of coal, oil and gas: fossil fuels. So it is an idea that would not only greatly reduce shipping’s contribution to greenhouse gases, but it would force the whole economy to go green with one fell swoop.

Of course there will be no such ban, but I would like to see some thought given to what we transport, how much of it we allow, how we get this transport spiral under control. It’s not an easy debate and certainly not in Australia, where I teach and where the economy is largely driven by coal and iron ore exports.

In the words of Herman Melville in his classic Moby-Dick, ‘In this world, shipmates, sin that pays travels freely around the world, while virtue, like a pauper, is stopped at all borders.’

De Beukelaer: That is the crux of our problem today, isn’t it? It is shipping that allows corporations to profit from global inequality. What gets shipped are products that were often produced in conditions of exploitation. It is people themselves, however, who are neglected.

When a ship is stuck in the Suez Canal, everyone screams bloody murder, and the sky threatens to fall on our heads. When tens of thousands or millions of people are stuck at Europe’s borders or in refugee camps, we simply order another cup of coffee.

Trade Winds. A voyage to a sustainable future for shipping by Christiaan De Beukelaer. Published by Manchester University Press (2023). 360 pages. ISBN 978 1 5261 6309 7

The French translation of Trade Winds will be released by Éditions Apogée in May this year. And on 16 May in Brussels, Christiaan De Beukelaer will participate in a panel discussion on Well-Being Ocean Economy at the Beyond Growth conference organised at the European Parliament from 15 to 17 May.

Gie Goris worked full-time in global journalism from December 1990 to September 2020, first as editor-in-chief of Wereldwijd (1990-2002), then as editor-in-chief of MO* (2003-July 2020). His areas of expertise: culture and religion in the context of conflict and human development, interculturalism and globalisation, and Islamism since 9/11. He specialised in Asia (from Iran to Indonesia, Central Asia to South Asia), with a major focus in recent years on the region around Afghanistan. He is now retired, but remains active as a freelance journalist.

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