How the Shipping Industry Can Pursue Sustainability Without Economic Compromise

Reconciling financial growth objectives with a green mindset can be a challenge for even the most committed of business leaders; throw in a global crisis unseen in a century, and the feat seems impossible.

The shipping industry, responsible for moving four fifths of global trade – from primary commodities to finished products – across the oceans is at the forefront of this challenge. 

Shipping is often a much more efficient and green means to transport goods than by land or by air.

However critical to international trade, the industry remains largely out of sight, out of mind of the average consumer. But ‘oil tankers’ in particular suffer from a bad reputation and is associated in the popular psyche to environmental accidents. 

April, which saw US crude prices turn briefly negative for the first time in history, was a long-awaited wake-up call both within and outside the industry.

While tankers have long played a vital part in transporting oil around the world, in recent weeks and months they have also been the key to preventing environmental and economic disaster on an unmitigated scale. 

As has been widely reported, the global collapse in demand for oil following the Covid-19 outbreak and the ensuing lock-downs has created an unprecedented challenge of managing the excess supply that flooded energy markets. 

Politicking aside, it became abundantly clear that it is virtually impossible to shut off the flow of oil production overnight, even for a short-term basis. Closing down oil wells and fields is no mean feat and there are significant costs associated to closing and re-opening, and suppliers, consumers and governments alike all quickly realised they were fast running out of space to store all the excess unused oil. 

As the imbalance worsened, the world was focused on one issue, what all this meant for oil prices and the economies of oil dependent countries. 

In actual fact, the growing environmental risk of potentially multiple oil spills dotted around the world was a crisis that was quietly creeping up on us, until one industry assumed the burden so the world could avoid such a disaster. 

The shipping industry- and in particular- fleets of oil tankers have, in the past weeks and months, carried the excessive loads of oil in order to harbour the surplus stock that otherwise would have been disposed off or burnt, causing potentially catastrophic damage, not only to natural environments on land and sea, but to the economies of oil producing developing countries that have proven to be more dependent on oil than many like to admit.

One such individual who has led the charge, is Alshair Fiyaz, an industrialist who seeks to embed sustainability into his shipping business. Over the course of the past few years, Fiyaz has emerged as a thought leader among global entrepreneurs in advocating effective sustainable practices in the shipping industry. 

Fiyaz, who has built up major portfolios in shipping fleets over the years – such as Global Oceanic Carriers – instructed his fleet of tankers off the coast of West Africa, to stockpile the excess oil that was coming out of countries like Nigeria, Angola and Gabon.

“There was going to be a massive pollution problem If the world didn’t have the ability to store oil on tankers because production cuts to the oil itself were happening nowhere near fast enough and consumer and industry consumption had all but disappeared because of international lockdowns,” Fiyaz said.

“The ability of tankers like these to safely store excess oil until it is needed has helped to prevent environmental damage to marine and land ecology’s around the world, not to mention save the industry billions of dollars that would have literally been washed away if the oil were wasted and simply disposed of. The significant impact of the shipping industry during these times shouldn’t be ignored,” he concluded.

In time, when the oil market will eventually rebalance and the crisis passes, and we look back at those organisations, businesses and industries on the front line in buffering world economic and environmental stability from the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, we should not overlook the vital role the shipping industry played and continues to play.

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