Since the depth of the global pandemic lockdowns in mid-March, the world’s biggest shipping companies have added over $23 billion to their market value.
Shareholders who would have invested in global shipping at that moment would have seen an 85% increase in the value of their shares.
The biggest global shipping companies have earned over $140 billion in revenue over the past twelve months alone.
40% of these revenues were earned from just three companies alone. These were the three Japanese giants that dominate global shipping, Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha, known as NYK Line ($25 billion revenue), Mitsui OSK Lines, known as MOL ($14 billion revenue) and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, known as ‘K’ Line ($13 billion revenue). Combined, they would be almost 40% larger than Danish giant Maersk.
Many of the ships that are used by these companies are registered in ‘Flags of Convenience’ countries such as Panama, Marshall Islands and Liberia, who dominate ship registration with 50% of all ships registered globally, but have weaker environmental and safety standards.
Many shipping companies are still dominated by wealthy, multi-generational private families, in one of the most protected and closed industries in the world.
Crunch climate talks for global shipping at the UN
This comes amid crunch talks this week at the UN Shipping Agency, London-based International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is aimed at curbing rising greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s sixth largest emitter, global shipping.
Ocean and climate protestors had besieged the London Headquarters of the IMO on Monday, amid claims that delegates were aiming to water down climate targets for shipping.
Protestors led by environmental group, Ocean Rebellion, had also targeted the IMO’s, Japan’s and Panama’s weak responses to global shipping incidents like the oil spill in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in August.
A spokesperson for Ocean Rebellion, Clive Russell, explained how several protests were co-ordinated against the IMO this week. “Ocean Rebellion organized three protests against the IMO. Firstly at the IMO, then at the Panama Embassy and finally at the Japan Embassy. By linking these three polluting protagonists Ocean Rebellion is pointing where the power lies – not with a UN international body acting on humanities’ behalf, but at a UN international body regulating on behalf of two nations and the shipping and fossil fuel industry.”
The ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ of global shipping
As 400,000 mariners remain stranded at sea due to a crisis in flying crew out to them, the UN Secretary General has called the crisis brewing in shipping a ‘humanitarian crisis.’
However, it appears that shipowners appear to have done relatively little to understand and provide for those stranded on ships, as well as loved ones on land separated from these families.
Earlier this month, the Executive Director of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), Roger Harris, had expressed his frustration at how little progress ship operators had made on addressing the concerns of seafarers around the world. On October 6, he said “Seafarers are becoming psychologically and physically fatigued as many of them have now been onboard vessels for longer than a year, with little or no shore leave. Separated from their friends and families many are becoming depressed and increasingly frustrated that then cannot return home.”
When asked about whether ship owners had been doing enough to support separated families such as through better internet on vessels, he responded, “We believe more needs to be done. We don’t currently have the evidence that ship operators have upped their game although many of the good shipping and ship management companies do provide free or cheap access to the internet”
Shipping on the front lines of the climate crisis
With global shipping on the front lines of the climate crisis due to warmer ocean surface temperatures creating more violent storms, the shipping industry’s stance on climate has been perplexing.
A warmer climate puts more of the vessels and mariners’s lives at risk with more storms. Just last month 40 crew went missing from the Panama-flagged Gulf Livestock 1 ship that was transporting 6000 live cows off the coast of Japan. Satellite analysis revealed that it had sailed straight into the eye of Typhoon Maysak, amid ongoing criticism of the Japanese Coastguard by the missing families, who have been arguing that the Japanese coastguard have been looking in the wrong locations.
It seems that with global shipping’s approach to climate crisis, it may be yet another industry that is putting profit ahead of the planet.
A ‘Divest Shipping’ Movement
Where industries have proven unable to regulate themselves, particularly with a weak and ineffective regulator such as the UN’s International Maritime Organization, there is a need for novel ways to change an industry.
Given that 40% of revenues of the global shipping industry comes from transporting fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas), global shipping and the fossil fuel industry are inextricably linked. One could not exist without the other.
With the coal and fossil fuels industry, a divest coal movement was launched. This had an impact with investors such as $7 trillion fund manager, Blackrock.
Perhaps with what is being seen with the reluctance of global shipping to take the actions needed to keep the planet within safe boundaries, such a ‘Divest Shipping’ movement may be needed until shipping’s emissions can be aligned with the 1.5C trajectory that is needed to save the world’s coral reefs.
It would certainly have prevented the spate of increasing maritime incidents that appear to be happening around the world this year.