New ways to foot the hefty bill for making old ships less polluting
SHIPPING may seem like a clean form of transport. Carrying more than 90% of the world’s trade, ocean-going vessels produce just 3% of its greenhouse-gas emissions. But the industry is dirtier than that makes it sound. By burning heavy fuel oil, just 15 of the biggest ships emit more of the noxious oxides of nitrogen and sulphur than all the world’s cars put together. So it is no surprise that shipowners are being forced to clean up their act. But in an industry awash in overcapacity and debt, few have access to the finance they need to improve their vessels. Innovative thinking is trying to change that.
A new report from the Carbon War Room (CWR), an international NGO, and UMAS, a consultancy, highlights the threat that new environmental regulations pose to the industry. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN’s regulatory agency for shipping, has agreed to cap emissions of sulphur from 2020. Last month the European Parliament voted to include shipping in the EU’s emissions-trading scheme from 2021. Without any retrofitting of ships to meet the new rules, many firms may be forced out of business. That also imperils banks across the world, which have lent $400bn secured on smoke-spewing ships.
Tens of billions of dollars are needed to pay for upgrades to meet the new rules, according to James Mitchell at CWR. But the industry can hardly pay even its existing debts. Freight rates have collapsed owing to a slowdown in world trade since the financial crisis and to enormous overcapacity. An earnings index compiled by Clarksons, a research firm, covering the main vessel types (bulk carriers, container ships, tankers and gas transporters), touched a 25-year low in 2016. Banks do not want to throw good money after bad.
Even those that are expanding their ship-lending have seen less demand than they expected for retrofit loans. ABN AMRO, a Dutch bank, and a market leader in this business, has made less than $500m in green loans over the past five years, says Gust Biesbroeck, its head of transportation finance. The problem, he adds, is one of incentives. Ship owners, who would normally borrow for such upgrades, do not benefit from lower fuel bills. It is the firms chartering the vessels that enjoy the savings. But their contracts are not long enough to make it worthwhile to invest in green upgrades. The average retrofit has a payback time of three years, whereas 80% of ship charters are for two years or less.
Hence the interest in new green-lending structures. One, called “Save as you Sail”, comes from the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, another NGO. The idea is to share the fuel savings between the shipowner and the charterer over a longer contract, giving both an incentive to make the upgrades. Such schemes used to be thwarted by the difficulty of measuring exact fuel consumption on ships. New technologies allow more accurate readings.
Finance providers are keen to get involved. Last June the European Investment Bank announced €250m ($282m) in funding for such retrofits; it hopes other banks will follow suit with billions more. In future, the idea might be extended to greening aircraft and trains. For now these businesses do not suffer a shortage of finance. But a downturn is a matter of “when not if”, says Michel Dembinski at MUFG, a bank. Green finance could rescue many other industries sailing into a storm.