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Slowing down trade – takeaways from discussions in the Arctic

Sofia Fürstenberg Stott, Business Development Manager and Strategic Content, shares her thoughts after the annual WISTA Conference was held in Tromsø this year.

The WISTA Annual Conference was held in Tromsø this year. In breathtaking ambience and in such painfully beautiful place, I just wish I had had more time to spend there.

While WISTA lately has visibly established itself as global shipping’s ambassador for equality and equal opportunities, not least through its consultative status with the IMO, this year’s conference managed to bring a systems’ perspective to the booming economic activities taking place in the Arctic, and in doing so, giving us all a lesson in how important it is to always look for the bigger picture.

The female mayor of Tromsø, Kristin Røymo, who comes from generations of fishermen, shared her concern over the increasing pollution from plastics, but also stressed that “this is the big stuff, what about the small stuff”? The long-term effect of plastic micro particles on humans and ocean life are disputed and little known. Therefore, she argued, we must take a low-risk approach, limiting the risks of any plastics reaching our ocean. Tromsø, she declared, has ambitions to become Norway’s first plastic-free community.

I agree with Elisabeth Grieg, CEO Grieg International, who says we can consider ourselves lucky if when we get up in the morning, know what we are going to do, and still feel that gives meaning. She talks about making impact and leaving the right kind of footprints behind. No bullshit, she stresses. Before I manage to get anxious over what my footprint may look like, I remind myself that no-one can change the world alone, but together there are few limits to what we can do.

I like Dr. Martin Stopford, President Clarkson Research. Especially today, when he has indulged in extrapolating pathways for how shipping can reach a 50% CO2 reduction by 2050, as per IMO’s prestigious target. Exploring pathways, while looking at hard facts and perhaps uncomfortable truths, is so important to get us just about anywhere. More of this is needed, as we tend to spend more time tweaking policies and regulations than we spend time mobilizing our efforts to create change.

Slow down trade
Then Stopford says something that I don’t think any shipping leader yet dare to say loud, and I want to applaud him for bringing this up. “We need to manage growth”, he says. “We need to slow down trade without damaging economic activity.” Stopford urges us to focus on value-add and not on volume. This is a fundamental and disruptive statement. Because this will challenge every business model based on economy of scale.

A couple of years ago, the CEO of one of the largest liner companies in the world contemplated on how shipping has lifted developing economies out of poverty. The best thing, he congratulated himself, is how globalization has given us access to cheaper products. Stopford suggests in his forecast model that if cargo growth reduces from a year-on-year 3.2% growth down to 2.2%, and we reduce the average transport speed from 14 down to 10 knots, we are in reach of the 2050 target. Given we have a complete rethink of our performance models and organizational structures, please note. But this requires that we, citizens of the world, stop buying garbage, and that we can accept a couple of more days additional transport time, I say!

Needs of the global economy
The issue of slowing down trade then got challenged immediately, listening to Equinor’s growth plans in the Barents Sea. The oil and gas in the Arctic are needed to sustain the needs of the global economy and the growth of our global population. (I went up on stage shortly after, referencing Bill Gates who suggests a fourth of global CO2 emissions comes from electricity production, another fourth from agriculture and cattle, one fifth from building and transport, and another fifth from manufacturing. The remaining 10% comes mainly from extracting of fossil fuels.)

What if Equinor could manage its production so that nothing was to be used on “garbage”? So that all that precious oil and gas from the depth of the Arctic waters went into production, transport and usage of something that added value? What if fossil fuels production could be earmarked for value-add only?

Sustainable ocean economy
In my short speech on stage, I stressed that shipping needs to look over and above their own environmental footprint, and start looking at how shipping can enable a more sustainable future for us all. Of course shipping needs to clean up their own act, and do their part, in meeting the climate goals (as well as the other 16 UN SDGs). But in this largest challenge for humanity thus far, shipping can also play another role.

To ensure reliable access of renewable energy, responsible access of rare minerals, sustainable access to food, medicines, fertilizers and perhaps polymers, the world needs to look to the ocean. The business opportunity for the shipping and maritime industry is here immense. But developing an ocean economy must be done while carefully ensuring the sustained health of our oceans. To accomplish this, we have to be better at collaborating. Across industries, together with policy-makers and government bodies, with the help of NGOs, think tanks and academia.

I look forward to playing my part in helping to ensure the success of these prospects. Quoting Elisabeth Grieg again, “If you are not here to contribute to the society, then why are you here?”.

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