An interesting theme for a Greek audience – “Back to the Sea” – was broached over by an equally interesting panel at the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Historical Library in Piraeus last Friday. Efthymios Mitropoulos, Honorary Secretary-General of the IMO and carrying the decades-long experience of the maritime world and George Prevelakis, Professor of Geopolitics at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, participated in a panel discussion organized by Economia Publishing.
Launching in a way the 2018 Posidonia International Shipping Exhibition, Mitropoulos begged to dissent from the subject as proposed: to him, Greece has been and remains a sea power with its 5,500 ships which provide some 20% of world tonnage, covering nearly 25% of tankers, some 20% of bulk carriers, 10% of chemicals vessels or 11% of refrigerator ships. If a return is to be hoped for, it would be for Greek-ownership vessels back to the Greek flag; also of a Greek-nationality younger generation to the shipping trade, so that the long tradition of maritime venturing does not fade out. For Mitropoulos, the fact that 9/10 of world trade is carried by sea is not fully understood. Shipping is a sector that has to adapt constantly to ever-changing conditions, from those geopolitical to those technical. Modern ships have to constantly integrate innovation in the digital age – and so do ports and offshore terminals.
A new generation of well-educated/well-trained professionals will have to do with the shipping trade as it is evolving - fast; with the Chinese having joined the fray while their huge OBOR/New Silk Road investment project aims at turning great transport loads over to land transportation; this, just as the Arctic Route promises 25%-55% less crossing time and may make new loads surface through hydrocarbon drilling at the Arctic; with autonomous or semi-autonomous ships down the road.
George Prevelakis took up the challenge of getting back to the teachings history provides us with, to find the thread of how all major events were ultimately decided at sea. And, from this point on, to explore how the formation of the modern Greek state has turned around the priority of openness and risk-taking that was the essence of Greece as a sea-faring nation towards conservative reflexes, a routine approach, hesitation to assume risk. The participation of Greece to the EU, itself very much a continental construction (a fact which may explain Brexit, after all…) has given further weight to this course.
Maybe the major economic crisis of the last years is turning once more things around. Not only shipping is going strong through successive challenges, but also the networks of Diaspora Greeks are flourishing. For Greece, shipping may well prove to be “the membership card to the global community nowadays”.
The issues raised by concerns over the environment brought Ef. Mitropoulos back to the podium – to present to the audience how the global debate over climate change has been affecting shipping. Notwithstanding the fact that transport generates some 27% of CO2 emissions, of which 21% have to do with road transport, 2.7% with air traffic and just 2.2% with shipping, the latter has had to conform with a series of international regulations. When the formation of a Global Green Fund of some 100 bn $ was proposed, shipping was called to contribute 6.5 bn – later on it was even called to bear a 25% share! Which explains why talks over such goal-setting proved unsuccessful. To Mitropoulos only reasonable, equilibrated, adequate and enforceable measures should be discussed – and the IMO is the best forum for such discussions to be held in a fruitful way. Technical measures, such as slow-steaming to bower CO2 emissions, as well as fitting ships with scrubbers and the such-like, as well as using marine fuel with 0.5% sulfur content (as IMO has decided as Global Cap) provide constructive approaches to dealing with greenhouse gases – but they have to carefully take into consideration the cost side of the equation. So does the issue of retrofitting refineries around the world in time for the 2020 timeline of 0.5% sulfur fuel.
Further to the panel discussion, University of the Aegean dean Eleni Thanopoulou addressed the largely youthful audience with a historical flashback to social relations as woven the sea, along with a discourse over the cyclical movement of birth-decay-destruction and rebirth that is associated with the very fluctuations of the sea experience. XRTC chairman George Xiradakis also addressed the younger element of the audience, admitting that older generations labour under a sense of guilt for having abandoned sea-faring: of some 140.000 Greek seamen in the mid-Eighties only a small percentage remained active, having received adequate re-training. Still, Greek shipping managed to remain successful – largely because it depends on a sense of excellence, on the quest for leadership; which, to Xiradakis, should guide young people when thinking of joining the trade.
This message was reflected in an emotional way by elder statesman of the shipping community Captain Panagiotis Tsakos, whose moving intervention from the audience brought the event to an almost sentimental closing.