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ITF to launch sustainable maritime shipping policy at COP26

14 September 2021

The International Transport Workers' Federation is seeking systemic change in the maritime industry's shift to green shipping. Its new sustainable maritime shipping policy firmly puts the rights of workers and safety of seafarers at the heart of that transition. Saffiyah Khalique reports

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) will launch its ground-breaking sustainable shipping policy in Glasgow. The policy calls for the rights of maritime workers and seafarer safety to be at the heart of any transition to a green economy.

Widespread and systemic change is needed to speed up the maritime industry's transition to green shipping – a change seafarers want to see, according to David Heindel, chair of the Seafarers' Section at ITF. The ITF has been working on alternative fuels and other sustainability issues through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as a global federation of seafarers' unions. The new policy marks a shift into the broader sustainability and climate space, Mr Heindel says.

'Seafarers can see the impacts climate change is already having. They can see their homes, their jobs, their workplaces, under pressure or under threat. It feels like every corner of the globe is being hit by these extraordinary events, which feel more severe every year.

'We are on the front line of the climate emergency. It's seafarers who are pulling people from floodwaters. It's seafarers rescuing from our oceans the growing number of refugees who are desperate to flee climate change-driven droughts, famines, fires and rising sea levels.

'The good part of this story is that seafarers really think that our industry can, and should, be part of the solution. By drawing on the passion and knowledge of this skilled profession, global shipping companies and regulators can deliver the step change in shipping that the planet needs,' Mr Heindel says.

The policy calls for structural and technological changes – from the use of alternative fuels to new patterns of global trade – to meet the need for systemic change within the maritime industry to ensure rapid decarbonisation.

Emissions targets should focus on total emissions from the sector rather than emissions intensity (see box out) as total emissions are what ultimately matter for containing global temperature rises.

The Flag of Convenience (FOC) system must no longer be used by shipowners to hide behind responsibility for emissions reduction. Those shipowners and operators which produce the greatest number of emissions must take greater responsibility for the costs of transition, regardless of flag.

The ITF supports public investment to develop decarbonisation infrastructure, but maintains that must be linked with good quality, unionised jobs with health and safety protections, especially for young people and women.

Jobs in decarbonisation infrastructure should be prioritised for workers in fossil fuel sectors with adequate retraining, with no decrease in wages and working conditions.

Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson, who helped shape the policy, says: 'The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and towards the net-zero maritime sector must fair and just. The focus of governments and industry should be to create high value work, in a way which does not negatively affect the current workforce. This should include ensuring that seafarers and maritime professionals are able to benefit from new job opportunities created by technological advances.'

Health and safety

The policy sets out how the transition to low carbon shipping must prioritise seafarer safety and calls on the IMO to develop international safety standards for all new systems for manoeuvre and propulsion, engine types, and alternative energy sources, including safeguards for storage, handling, and disposal. This also includes revisions to The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the creation of any new standards necessary to regulate the new energy resources.

As standards are only as effective as their enforcement mechanisms, elected health and safety representatives and ITF inspectors working for the global labour movement must play a part in this process.

Health and safety should also be considered in the IMO energy efficiency ratings system, under discussion at the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).

'Seafarers and other key workers, through their unions, must be involved in developing health and safety standards within countries and at the international level,' Mr Heindel says.

'Seafarers must be protected against criminalisation, including when new technologies and/or equipment malfunction. Seafarers must not be held responsible for issues out of their control and must be afforded local legal protections consistent with their obligations under international laws.'

Mr Heindel warned laws like the Borders and Nationality bill proposed by the UK government risked criminalising seafarers, many of whom would be called on to save the rising number of climate refugees.

Education, training, and careers

IMO member states and other relevant bodies must implement and enforce existing international standards on safety, training, and familiarisation for all crew that is required by the STCW 1978. As well as implementing existing standards, there needs to be new Knowledge, Understanding, Proficiency and Competencies (KUPC) qualifications for alternative fuels and advanced technologies alongside appropriate certifications that prove the KUPC of seafarers.

Commitments to retraining seafarers should include appropriate sea time, onboard training and mentorship, familiarisation and watchkeeping systems, maintenance, hours of work and hours of rest.

Seafarers whose jobs are displaced should be retrained and have redeployment guarantees, which could include shore-based jobs. Clear pathways for seafarer career development is necessary.

The rapid transition to net zero will create opportunities for underrepresented groups in maritime. There needs to be an active policy to promote women in maritime as part of a just transition.

Active encouragement of young people into the industry so they can see themselves working in a green industry in a few decades time.

The ITF calls on shipping companies to offer more on-the-job training and apprenticeships to take on their share of training costs. Seafarers should be compensated for taking part in training programmes during their holidays or shore leave.

The ITF will launch its sustainable shipping position paper ahead of COP26 in November, which will include the opinions of seafarers on climate change and green shipping. The Sustainable Maritime Policy will be launched at the People's Assembly in Glasgow.

The next review of IMO emissions targets will take place in 2023.

Seafarers can see the impacts climate change is already having. They can see their homes, their jobs, their workplaces, under pressure or under threat

IMO slow to act on emissions reduction

International shipping is responsible for just under 3% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), approximately equivalent to the total emissions of an industrialised country like Germany.

To avoid damaging the environment and the irreversible impacts of climate change the scientific consensus is that the global temperature must be contained to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. This limit of 1.5 degrees is part of the targets set by the 2015 UN-led Paris Agreement and to reach this the world needs to decrease GHG emissions to net zero by 2050, also set out in the ITF's Sustainable Transport Policy Framework.

However, the international maritime industry is not bound by the Paris Agreement and instead falls under the jurisdiction of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). IMO member states have been to slow in acting on the reduction of emissions adopting an initial strategy in 2018. The IMO targets are focused on reducing emission intensity with the aim to reduce intensity by 40% in 2030.

Current IMO policy lists three key measures to limit GHG emissions from vessels:

  • Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) – The EEDI has set the emissions standards for different newbuilds since 2013 and will apply to all new vessel types from 2025
  • Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index (EEXI) – The EEXI sets emissions standards for existing ships
  • Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan (SEEMP) – Every vessel is obliged to have a SEEMP, however, changes specified in the SEEMP are not enforceable and vessels can continue to operate even with the lowest energy efficiency grades


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