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Viewpoint: The new religion

It might be perfectly possible to design new ships around some agreed limitation of speed or power that would fit in with the idea that ships might be slowed to reduce fuel emissions. But to adopt such an idea on speed reduction now is wildly misguided when we do not know what the effects would be of the de-rating of existing machinery that was designed to very different criteria

Although the maritime industry should think about how to bring about more efficient power generation in ships, it should not be in thrall to the large numbers of juvenile activists who have been given so much media coverage over recent weeks

HERE are a few questions to be going on with.

Are practical, technically feasible solutions on the environmental sustainability of large ocean-going ships more, or less, likely to be achieved if the decision-makers are being shouted at by large numbers of juvenile activists?

And while you can believe anything about politicians these days, why should mature scientists and engineers put up with being lectured to by the half-formed and simplistic ideas of a Swedish teenager who has no business being out of school?

And estimable old chap that he is, should we be all hanging on the words of a broadcaster, as if he has all the answers to the complicated questions that trouble mankind?

It is pretty unpopular, even tasteless, to be posing such questions in these strange times, when the mobs are so easily unleashed upon those who ask them, and who are duly condemned for heresy against the true religion. And environmentalism is a religion, said to be secular, with the zeal and fanaticism of its adherents, who probably don’t believe in much else, furious in the defence of their faith.

I have, in recent days, been reminded of the faux wisdom of the ill-fated 11th century Children’s Crusade, and that didn’t end too well.

We live, I was reading recently, in “a new age of activism”, when the ability of social media to summon hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands, out onto the streets is exerting undeniable pressure on politicians, regulators and decision-makers.

You might suggest that the real effects of these shrieking hordes is limited and provides a useful safety valve for public anger, although France’s President Macron may have other views. Which would be true, were it not for the obvious fact that the shouted, although sometimes incoherent messages are clearly registering where it matters.

It is also useful to ponder on what commercial or political interests there might be in the background, behind the polite children issuing International Maritime Organization delegates with paper boats, the head teachers giving their blessing to activist truancy, or the simplistic but standardised messages on the placards waved by the super-glued protesters.

Career-ending dissension

Admittedly, there are whole subjects taught at school these days that are scarcely disguised environmental propaganda, all singing from the same song book and inserting both overt and subliminal messages into everything from geography to social “science”.

And in every university, from the greatest in the land to the meanest ex-polytechnic, there can be no dispute or debate, with any dissension from the approved group-think invariably career-ending, amid the intolerant world of academia. You have to go with the flow — or else. After the Children’s Crusade — think on the Inquisition.

Against this deeply unpromising background, you have to be a bit sympathetic to anyone trying to weigh engineering practicalities and the science of ship design against the increasingly political imperatives as summarised on the paper boats. The shipping industry is urged to “Slow ships down!”

If only it was that simple!

“Give her all you’ve got, Scotty!” As the sharp rocks get ever closer, the master’s desperate call will fall on the deaf ears of the chief engineer in his control room.

“Sorry, captain — the Clean Air (Power Limitation Regulation 2020), expressly forbids the consumption of any more fuel — can’t you hoist a sail?”

Let’s not become fanciful. There is a need to reduce the carbon footprint, and the political imperatives don’t allow for the usual timescale of major regulatory changes. But it will be a dark day indeed if the International Maritime Organization gets stampeded into approving some sort of fix that will persuade the activists to back off a while, but which has little or no technical credibility.

Whatever is decided in Lambeth needs to incorporate solutions that incentivise good ship operation and management and above all, provide real encouragement for ground-breaking work in hull performance, marine fuels and engine design. The industry isn’t standing idly by and substantial research is going into more efficient power generation. This needs encouragement, not a lot of regulation that will persuade engineers that their work will be in vain.

Shipping knows that it has to change, and can no longer avoid regulations that will treat the shipping industry as a cash cow in the shape of fuel taxes, or the old chestnut of “market-based measures” (which will have certain interests delighted).

The real skill will be in getting the users of ships to pay their share, with shippers already developing their strategies against such efforts. And while it might be perfectly possible to design new ships around some agreed limitation of speed or power, do we really know what we are doing in the de-rating of existing machinery that was designed to very different criteria?

The prospect of some grim booted inspector closely scrutinising the logbooks and cross questioning the master and chief engineer about why they thought the weather justified a higher fuel consumption, with heavy fines on the cards, is not an altogether daft idea.

That’s religion, circa 2019.

rjmgrey@dircon.co.uk

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