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Stop trying to make future fuels not happen

FuelEU enters force in just 200 days and the IMO will roll out its net zero plans in about a year from now. This is no time to order gas-guzzler newbuildings

The debate on measures already agreed is not going to be reopened, whatever certain shipowners were telling themselves at Posidonia this week

LEGEND has it that the late tanker tycoon Stavros Niarchos once visited an art exhibition and immediately resolved to buy every single painting on display. As you do.

When told that some of the pictures had already been sold, he retorted: “I always regard red spots as meaning ‘negotiate’.”

That attitude lives on today in the Greek tramp shipping sector, where there are rarely any foregone conclusions about the future, other than that there will always be opportunities for further S&P deals.

While regulators may be under the serene misapprehension that the 2030, 2040 and 2050 decarbonisation rules have actually been agreed, some owners out there appear to be treating them as a highball opening bid.

The world has changed, the argument echoed in the halls of Posidonia this week, where the tramp trade titans of tankers and bulkers are kings and the impudent influence of bureaucrats and pen-pushers is derided as distraction. 

We need to factor in energy security as well as energy transition, they argued. The technology is there, the regulation may be coming, but realistically, the fuel supply is not.

For now, we need to focus on efficiency and not get lost worrying about fuels that do not exist and targets that cannot be met.

For some, this will seem a refreshing outbreak of pragmatism marking a genuine shift towards a more realistic conversation, a much-needed reset in the wake of greenwashed spin that never really had any substance.

From another perspective, this is the ESG backlash playing out, and pulling back on the hard yards of decarbonisation. Either way, there is a showdown brewing.

The reality is that decrees already laboriously agreed are not going to be substantially rejigged, whatever certain shipowners talk themselves into believing.

FuelEU Maritime, the latest in a series of major emissions reduction packages directed at shipping from the EU has more teeth than EEXI, EEDI, CII or any other of its alphabetti spaghetti predecessors. It enters into force in just over 200 days.

It will have a significant effect. The warnings from the cocktails and canapes circuit this week were alarmingly clear.

For a typical containership burning 100 tonnes of light fuel oil per day, the cost of compliance from January will be about $3,000 dollars each day, according to ABS.

That is a bill of around $150,000 on a typical 50-day round trip from Europe to the Far East. But as far as Brussels is concerned, this is just the gentle on-ramp, as the bloc is expected to revise up FuelEU’s emission reduction targets to align with its more ambitious climate strategy in the coming years.

From 2030, costs start to rise significantly. By 2035 the same vessel will be burning through $20,000 a day, or around $1m on a round trip to Shanghai.

By 2050, the daily cost hits $100,000. And this is only if the voyage begins or ends in the EU. If it is an intra-EU voyage, you are looking at double that.

A ro-ro shuttling between European ports on LFO could well rack up a daily bill approaching $250,000 as early as next year, rising to well over $9m for the same scale of operations by 2050.

However alarming that may sound, the rules are designed to ensure few are, in fact, ever paying the more inflated sums that build up by the middle of this century.

It represents instead the kind of creative destruction process Joseph Schumpeter himself would have recognised, reshaping the industry around us well before that time and rewarding first movers on emissions reduction technology. It seeks to turbocharge return on investment in alternative fuels technology.

Posidonia attendees listened to these sage warnings, nodded, and then walked next door to recharge their glasses while arranging finance for their next round of gas-guzzler newbuildings.

Fundamentally they do not believe that the future fuels are coming. They very much are.

In the past week’s Lloyd’s List Podcast, Poseidon Principles banker Michael Parker pointed out that when President John F Kennedy announced that the US would put a man on the moon, it took less than seven years before that huge leap for mankind.

“Do not tell me shipping cannot decarbonise by 2050,” he said from the stage in Athens, railing against the palpable push-back from the audience.

Naysayers have more than Brussels to kick against. The International Maritime Organization signed up to net zero last July and, by the end of next year, it will have agreed concrete steps that roll out in relatively short order.

There might just be room for a pragmatic discussion about how shipping these goals. But the goals are certain to remain.

Meanwhile, as Posidonia was playing out in Greece, London saw the opening of the stage musical version of Tina Fey’s cult high school movie Mean Girls.

To paraphrase Regina George’s immortal put-down to Gretchen Wieners: Stop trying to make future fuels not happen.

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