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Shell Shocked: Why a tumultuous week for Big Oil is a turning point for shipping

The succession of landmark decisions for the supermajors this week is not just an energy issue — from similar legal action potentially taken against major shipping companies for their environmental record, to a more precarious outlook and for companies moving fossil fuels, shipping companies will be affected by this week's developments

Shell’s court-ordered emissions cut and the Green coup at the hands of activist investors at ExxonMobil and Chevron this week will have repercussions for shipping well beyond the immediate news cycle. Change is coming faster than many would like, there is now an urgent need for the industry to adapt or face the consequences

A WEEK that could define the future of the energy industry should also have shipping’s decision-makers assessing their own hopes and expectations.

In a landmark decision, a Dutch court ordered Shell to significantly accelerate its decarbonisation efforts and reduce its net global emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2019, including those from its customers and suppliers.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil lost board seats to climate activist candidates and shareholders at Chevron backed measures to reduce emissions from the use of its products.

The credit raters have already delivered their verdict — stricter investor expectations “could lead to higher capital costs and diminished access to capital for oil companies that do not keep pace with investors’ expectations for transitioning to a low carbon business model”.

Total shareholders also approved rebranding the French company to TotalEnergies in an effort to demonstrate an increasing attention to renewable energy.

Energy majors, who are both customers and suppliers to the shipping industry, are on the front line of the energy transition so it is reasonable to expect that the first radical changes play out first in their boardrooms.

But the barrage of repercussions for the shipping industry is now inevitable. From similar legal action potentially taken against major shipping companies for their environmental record, to a more precarious outlook and for companies moving fossil fuels, shipping companies will be affected by this week's developments.

This is another clear message that shipping companies must become more vigilant in their emissions reductions efforts, making them a core part of their business, not an ancillary activity that is there for show.

The incomplete and unclear sustainability and environmental reports that a recent Lloyd’ List analysis found a number of shipping companies have published, will not be sufficient withstand the further scrutiny that shareholders, supply chain partners apply on them.

This week will also renew pressure on the users of liquefied natural gas, a fossil fuel that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions but only to a point, while suffering the slip of unburned methane.

Methane as a greenhouse gas has a much shorter lifespan than CO2 but can also lead to more than 84 times greater warming over a 20-year period.

If LNG is a transitional fuel, as its backers claim, they should ask themselves how long does this transition last if the legal and investor momentum to ensure that timeline shrinks, grows any further?

But shipping companies would also be wise to welcome this week’s developments. Companies have rightly pointed out that running ships on low-carbon fuels is not in their control. The added pressure on their fuel suppliers should mean they seek to develop viable low-carbon products faster and provide them to their customers, shipping companies, faster.

The energy transition is not going to be a one-sided affair. The alternatives must be viable and affordable, especially for developing and least developing nations, and demand for the products has to be there.

The writing has been on the wall since the 2015 Paris Agreement and 2021 is on course to be a watershed in several ways, with COP26 also coming in November.

This week’s unprecedented legal defeat and successful shareholder climate activism are arguably the strongest evidence yet that combating global warming is no longer a just political ambition with theoretical financial and operational implications.

For shipping, the implications are coming faster than many would have like and the need to adapt is paramount.

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