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A Green Deal for inland waterways

4 February 2021

A new report issued by the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) highlights the carbon-cutting potential of inland waterways – and how vulnerable they are to climate change. Could green investment here help to preserve our environment and create new employment opportunities for Nautilus members into the bargain?

The climate crisis is full of unpleasant surprises. The things that we take for granted can suddenly turn out to be extremely fragile – including Europe's waterways, which are now at risk.

After all, the vessels that use our 37,000 kilometres of navigable waterways require a stable climate to operate – if the glaciers that supply our rivers disappear, or the weather patterns that fill them with rain shift, what happens to the volume of water downstream?

Fortunately, inland waterways can also play a big part in solving the climate problem – the energy consumption for goods transported on this mode is approximately 17% compared with road transport, and 50% compared with rail – and some organisations with deep pockets have begun to take notice.

The European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) has issued a new position paper, 'Navigating Our Way to a Sustainable Future', that spells out the dangers posed by climate change but also the economic opportunities for workers and businesses that green investment could bring to a troubled sector.

Cash strapped

The inland waterways sector is heading into the climate crisis with one serious problem: money.
The sector, which largely consists of small owner-operator firms, was hit hard by the 2008 recession; next, essential safety initiatives (such as the switch to double-hulled tanker vessels) required significant investment; now Covid-19 is killing freight volumes – down 30% in a year.
Covid is particularly brutal for river cruise companies. Nearly 350 vessels now provide this leisure service, twice as many as in 2004, and yet the whole business has been paused, an absolute disaster for thousands of employees.

If crewmembers have a long-term attractive prospect, they will continue to work in the sector and shape its sustainable future. The European Transport Workers' Federation

Put simply, the money for green investment won't come from within the sector when companies are already struggling to survive. The paper makes this very clear: 'The sectors' current financial capacity to innovate and retrofit is very thin to non-existent, making additional external investment essential if the sector is to reach its green transport potential.

'The only way forward is massive investment.'

A green recovery

The question is, where will the cash come from?

Many of the industries that have been hit hard by Covid are pinning their hopes for economic recovery on green investment – with money supplied by governments and transnational bodies such as the European Union.

The European Green Deal, for example, was created by the EU Commission to achieve a target of net zero emissions by 2050 through regulation and, crucially, investment.

Fortunately for Nautilus members, the Commission is calling for a change in transport as part of this initiative: 'The potential for increasing the modal share of inland waterway transport is significant. [It] is characterised by its reliability, energy efficiency and major capacity for increased exploitation. The European Commission aims to promote and strengthen the competitive position of inland waterways in the transport system, and to facilitate its integration into the intermodal logistics chain.'

The future of inland waterways now hangs in the balance – the European Commission will present the third part of its NAIADES programme for inland navigation in first quarter of 2021, with a roadmap the explains how it intends to achieve its two key aims: increasing uptake of inland waterway transport, and gradually shifting to zero-emissions vessels.

It is indeed lucky that the Commission is aware of the potential for inland waterways transport since, as the ETF spells out, 'to realise these ambitious visions, inland waterway transport needs – more than ever before – significant investments in and financial support for research, development and innovation'.

New jobs, better conditions

While the sector awaits NAIADES III, the ETF has some ideas of its own about where any additional money should flow. According to the paper, Green Deal investment aimed at retrofitting the existing fleet and increasing capacity would certainly create extra employment: 'Currently, over 45,000 people work in the sector as mobile workers on barges and river cruise vessels. Many more work in infrastructure, inland ports and administration. Recognising the potential role of inland navigation in a sustainable future would spur the creation of additional green jobs in the sector.'

The paper suggests that investment could be channelled into engines research and changing vessels over to liquified natural gas (LNG). Further automation will probably also be needed if inland waterways are to handle a bigger share of transport. All of this will create career opportunities for skilled professionals.

Yet the ETF warns that innovation should not be at the expense of workers. Revamped and new vessels will require crews who have the right training and expertise, while greener automated systems should not be allowed to damage social sustainability.

'Investment in new skills is critical to ensure that workers are prepared and protected… These [investments] should be aimed at re- and upskilling and training. We advocate the elaboration of a compulsory periodic training scheme for all crewmembers to ensure the optimalisation of human potential.'

Finally, the ETF takes the position that retaining and building upon the expertise of the existing workforce will be essential if the sector is to reach its full potential:

'Especially in the transition period that will create additional uncertainties, the sector's stability and attractiveness have to be the top priority. Training, retraining and re-skilling programmes will contribute largely to this attractiveness, together with quality living and working conditions both onboard as on shore. If crewmembers have a long-term attractive prospect, they will continue to work in the sector and shape its sustainable future.'


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