Maritime Human Sustainability: Challenges & Actions

In 1987 the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In my view, sustainability in shipping by 2030 might be a blend of:

(a) an industry that wholly supports a cleaner environment, and with the world recognising it as the safest and cleanest means of transport;

(b) shipping also being the most cost-effective way to transport goods; and

(c) an industry which is among the best in terms of work-life balance and quality of life.

But to achieve what I will call the 3 Ps of sustainability – people, planet and profit – there is of course a “how”, and I list that as follows:

Using ship to shore data feed technology to reduce CO2 emission. This can facilitate key operational decisions, which if made in real time can greatly assist in lessening CO2 emissions;

Using exhaust emission technology. By focusing on the capture and treatment of exhaust emissions, we can address specific pollutants such as sulphur, which is one of the most serious ones, and can look to convert highly poisonous gases into non-toxic ones;

Using alternative fuels. The shipping industry must further and increasingly explore LNG, hydrogen and even solar panels in reducing its environmental impact and more generally must operate in a more environmentally friendly way;

By engaging Fuel Optimisation Systems, which use AI-based technologies in processing huge amounts of data from various onboard sensors and thus indicate optimal routing, speed and manoeuvring;

By technology advancement to harness wind power, so that sails or kites can augment conventional propulsion methods, hence major cost saving and reduction in pollution;

Keener focus on vital steps in recruiting, training and retention – maritime stakeholders must increase efforts on all these if they are to avoid a serious shortage in the supply of crew.

However, when we talk about sustainability we are mostly inclined towards green issues, which are of course usually expressed in terms of the environment.

There is no doubt that environmental sustainability is important, but somewhere along the way we have neglected, or maybe even forgotten about, human sustainability. On that, i.e. for the maritime industry to significantly improve its approach on this vital aspect by 2030, there are certain actions which need to be taken. These are:

Recognition of the key importance of mental health. There is no doubt that crew suffer from mental health issues and need support, and designated centres, digital platforms, hotline numbers and counsellors for mental health and related human well-being are all a major necessity;

The creation of better internet access on board. It is amazing and very concerning that, in the age of 5G and Starlink, crew members are still living with poor and sometimes no internet access. It should be understood – for it is not hard to understand – that in this digital age access to the internet is a basic necessity and not a luxury. I know of instances where this has been a decisive factor in choosing which company to sail with, which is a pretty clear indicator of how important it is;

Gender equality at sea. This is still a major concern. We need to focus on creating a safe environment for women on board, and the continuing reluctance of many companies to employ female seafarers must right away become a thing of the past. Employers need simply to look at it from the female standpoint and focus on some basics like providing female cabins, sanitary bins and proper, bespoke PPE;

Recreational areas and activities on board need to be improved. Fatigue should not be considered as only physical, but also mental, and that needs to be tackled, by for example recreation areas and improved social activities that can specifically address the safety risks caused by fatigue in both senses;

Improved and continual training. In an ever evolving socio-economic and technological environment, outdated operational practices must go and any skills gaps must be filled, with state-of-the-art training, both ashore and at sea;

There is an imminent generational issue, in that the upcoming Millennials and GenZ, who will amount to more than 70% of the total global workforce by 2030, will have values that might clash with historical and current ones, especially in this industry, which is both traditional and hierarchical. In order to understand and as far as possible accommodate what may be very new thought processes and routes to solving problems, we have to bring today’s young people to the platform and seek their views on what currently happens and how it might improve. Rather than imposing structures and procedures (i.e we do what we have always done just because we have always done it) we should give them an open platform so they can bring forth innovation;

Digital skills need to be developed. Training must not only include traditional learning but must also use the very latest techniques, via for example virtual reality, AI and coding. We need to focus on skills and opportunities that will prove decisive in younger generation career choice.

Lastly, it is sure that, in order to attract a broad pool of talent, the maritime industry needs to improve its overall approach to human sustainability, well-being and work conditions at sea. Issues such as long working hours, low pay, loneliness and mental health need to be addressed, thoroughly and urgently, in order to make our profession once again prestigious and so as to be considered as a career by the upcoming generation.

The human element is an essential factor in the global maritime industry achieving sustainability by 2030, which makes addressing human sustainability challenges an imperative.

Captain Vikram Singh – “Orange Victoria”