Maritime leaders see pandemic as springboard for change (source: Lloyd’s List)

Shipping’s robust response to the health crisis has shown resilience under adversity. This should reinforce a belief that decarbonisation goals can be achieved through collaboration, transparency and digital solutions

The ICS leadership webinar identified progress made during the pandemic as a platform for change. In spite of many short and medium-term threats, the industry should see its response as positive

SHIPPING has proved its resilient during the past six months: no one could see the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, so no one made an emergency plan.

However, far from buckling under the strain, resources have been redeployed, homeworking has become widespread and digital solutions have been hurried into service.

The speed at which shipping has responded has been impressive, according to today’s International Chamber of Shipping leadership webinar. Although the crew change crisis has dampened the celebrations, there is much to applaud.

“Shipping is now talking with many stakeholders we didn’t talk to before,” said Torunn Biller White, chief risk officer at Gard, the Norwegian P&I club.

The industry has developed contingency plans and become much more agile in its thinking, she stated. There is greater willingness to invest in digital technology, new learning opportunities are being explored, and improved levels of communication created.

More broadly, shipping has been forced to embrace collaboration as a way to tackle external threats, such as the current pandemic.

The pandemic has reinforced underlying consumer patterns, argued Lars Karlsson, a former director of the World Customs Organization.

This has been achieved by a rapid transition from just-in-time to just-in-case, by a focus on transparency and predictability, and by an accelerated uptake of digitalisation.

However, he warned that protectionist activity has become more intense over the past three years than for decades.

Jan Hoffmann, chief of the Trade Logistics Branch at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, suggested that technological progress has increased in speed “and will get even faster”.

This prompted Jeremy Nixon, chief executive of Ocean Network Express, to wonder whether shipping would have been capable of responding quite so well a decade ago.

This discussion revealed that the post-pandemic norms for shipping are becoming clearer. The health crisis has undoubtedly pushed the search for digital solutions, and there is an acceptance that sustainability and decarbonisation of the industry will never be achieved company by company. Collaboration is key, transparency is the pathway and cyber-secure digitalisation is the driver.

The elephant in the virtual room is no longer what should be done, but when should it be done.

Latching on to the comment by ICS chairman Esben Poulsson that “this industry is not for the faint-hearted”, observers might have wondered whether decarbonisation goals stretching out to 2050 are valid any longer.

If shipping can respond to an immediate threat like coronavirus as well as it has, a timeline for clean emissions 30 years distant looks outdated.

This insightful webinar separated the immediate threats (crew change crisis, supply chain resilience, trade conflicts) from the longer-term dangers (increasing protectionism, decarbonisation and regional fuel levies). It asked whether shipping should take courage from its response to the pandemic to be more ambitious with its decarbonisation goals.

Shipping exists in a global knowledge economy. The industry must lock in the progress it has made during the pandemic and use it as a springboard for change.

If maritime leaders achieve this, International Maritime Organization’s goals can be achieved with time to spare. But if progress is allowed to slip back, even 2050 will be a tall order.