I n our blog last week, we shared some thoughts on the “new normal” we’re facing in the maritime sector; as we begin to emerge from the pandemic crisis of the last 6 months, the risks to global trade and the benefits of digital disruption have come to the fore. Today, we’re looking at one of the early winners in all the chaos. If there is one aspect of life that is benefiting from the COVID19 pandemic, it’s the environment.

Seaborne trade represents about 90% of worldwide trade and the global merchant fleet counts more than 50,000 vessels of all cargo types.  Whilst shipping is crucial to global trade, it is also a huge polluter by contributing significantly to mounting total emissions.  Approximately 3% of global COemissions and 5-10% of global sulphur emissions can be laid at the door of the maritime industry in which high sulphur fuels still dominate.

Whilst IMO 2020 seeks to radically reduce emissions through its global standards programme, nature appears to be sending us a message in the form of the pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis, according to Inger Anderson, who heads up the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Images of the Rio dei Ferali, behind San Marco square in Venice, showing the normally murky canal water (L) and the fish-rich canal water during lockdown (R)

So, what happens when ships, planes, trains and automobiles all over the world simply stop at the same time to contain the virus.  It may be too soon to judge from a scientific perspective, but few will deny that our air is cleaner,  animals are reclaiming their old stomping grounds,  fish are returning to Venetian canals.  In Singapore, the blue skies are more blue than we’re accustomed to which is a stark reminder of the impact manufacturing, shipping and refining have on our air.

From high up in our atmosphere to the depths of our oceans, nature is breathing a sigh of relief as this “unintended experiment” unfolds.

NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China, evidence that the change is related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of coronavirus.

However, this welcomed respite from the horrors of COVID19 won’t, unfortunately, do much to turn the time of climate change.  What we’re seeing is likely a temporary reprieve rather than anything more permanent.  When the global lockdowns ease and the ships, planes, trains and automobiles begin their journeys once again, we will only be left with memories.  This temporary reminder of Mother Nature may spur us on to reinvigorate our efforts to address climate change, and for that small gift, we can be grateful.

Four of the notable environmental and health issues attributable to maritime emissions include ocean acidification, climate interference, marine biofouling and life-threatening health problems amongst our population. With reduced global trade and international shipping, it is expected that we will see emissions drop over the coming months, but it’s too early for hard data. However, there is good news from an early report published last month by Carbon Brief which quantifies the dramatic reduction in global CO2 emissions since January ’20 as a result of the decline as demand for shipping collapses.  Negative as that decline is for our industry, the environmental “bonus” of COVID19 has to be welcomed.

Delhi before and during the lockdown.

This also has a significant positive impact on our oceans and coastal ecosystems by removing Alien Invasive Species (AIS), the “uninvited passengers” that hitch a free ride to locations where they don’t belong. We are pleased to see the sometimes-neglected care of the hull taking place during this downtime, but as always, there are less positive environmental implications that don’t make for such buoyant news.

Increased Crime at Sea

While the images of spotless beaches in Brazil and clear skies over Shanghai are wonderful to see, our oceans will not benefit from the anticipated increased illicit maritime activities like illegal fishing, smuggling and piracy that are already occurring due to diminished regulatory and law enforcement on

our seas. With the increased shutdown of ports to international maritime vessels, more trans-shipments are also likely to occur, complicating the fallout from decreased maritime authority presence.

The body which oversees the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP)  reported that in the first quarter of 2020, there have already been 29 incidents of armed robbery against ships in Asia, 19 more than the same time last year

Startling headlines from ReCAAP’s Q1 2020 report

In the waters around Singapore, we had 2 piracy incidents recorded within one hour of each other in February.  Anticipating further such episodes and the need for more robust and agile responses,  the restructuring of the Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF) was announced in February to ensure the safety of vessels and crew in our waters.

It will take years to quantify the impact that such a mass-reduction in global movement will have had on our environment, but there is no denying the crisis has a silver lining for Mother Nature.  There have been widespread calls from governing bodies, NGOs and analysts to seize this moment and put extra force behind sustainability efforts.  As Bain & Co succinctly put it, this is “a dry run for the sustainability agenda and an opportunity for companies to see how they can tackle an expanding range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges”.

For our part, we will continue to support our clients by using the most eco-friendly processes and practices possible.  We look forward to your continued support of our efforts.

We hope you will visit us next week for the final blog in this series. If you would like to know more about our underwater I.R.M, Sea Logistics or NDT services please contact us here.