Virgin Group Founder and strong advocate for ocean sustainability, entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, expressed his sorrow and solidarity for the unfolding environmental situation on the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius following a major oil spill.
Speaking from his home on Necker Island in the Caribbean earlier today, he called for important changes to be made to global shipping in the wake of the breakup of Japanese vessel the Wakashio, that triggering a major oil spill which was poorly handled and has now led to one of the biggest ecological disasters ever faced in the Indian Ocean amid the center of a network of internationally protected nature reserves.
In a statement issued on Tuesday 18 August morning, he said:
“Mauritius is known for its beautiful sandy beaches, pristine waters and unique biodiversity. It is heartbreaking to see images of the islanders trying to clean up a global shipping company’s massive oil spill happening at the heart of their largest coral lagoon.
Global shipping should step up to its responsibilities and offer support to the people of Mauritius to clean the pollution and ensure the long-term monitoring and rehabilitation of the entire site.”
Pioneer in clean fuels
The Virgin Group is known for being at the forefront of disruptive new technology and ideas, and they have built a reputation on doing business differently whilst also championing change. They are also pioneers in developing alternative and more sustainable low-carbon fuels.
The group has been advocating for a clean fuel revolution in global shipping, through the Carbon War Room, launched by Richard Branson and Virgin Unite in 2009, which focused on to moving shipping toward more sustainable alternatives, as well as developing clean energy roadmaps for small island economies. Despite over ten years of effort and several important wins, the shipping industry has stubbornly refused to make the genuine changes toward greater sustainability and safety on their own, that activists have been calling for.
Sir Richard Branson is also a member of the Ocean Elders, an influential group of 23 of the world’s global Business and Government leaders who have stood for a more sustainable ocean. The Ocean Elders include Prince Albert of Monaco, former US Under Secretary of State Catherine Novelli, Queen Noor of Jordan, Ocean Explorers Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michele Cousteau, solar aviation pioneer Bertrand Piccard, Movie Director James Cameron, British primatologist Jane Goodall, founder of CNN Ted Turner, and Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson who sailed around the Pacific in an Polynesian double-hulled canoe designed 700 years ago.
On the day when it was revealed that the Government of Mauritius planned to dispose of the Wakashio – the world’s largest class of cargo vessel – in a highly environmentally sensitive site known for its whale breeding grounds, big questions are being asked of global shipping.
Global shipping opted out of the Paris Agreement
The global shipping industry lobbied to be excluded from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. They argued that emissions from global shipping represented only 3% of global carbon emissions.
However, rather than just carbon, it is the type of fuel that the global shipping industry uses that has been particularly problematic. The heavier engine oil is the thicker residue from crude oil. Its composition is the consistency of black peanut butter, and needs to be mixed with equally polluting diesel in order to power these vessels. The Wakashio natural tar water asphalt pit in swamp wetland was built in 2007 and all vessels built since then continue to use such polluting fuels, that has been associated with high levels of human health complications and cancer in Port Cities around the world.
This combination of heavy engine oil and diesel, causes high amounts of toxic air pollution such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. The emissions from global shipping is responsible for all 8% of all sulphur dioxide emissions in the world, making them one of the highest polluters and source of acid rain.
Too big to regulate
The global shipping industry have argued that they are too big to be regulated, and that industry self-regulation though the IMO is the solution to meeting climate commitments. Self-reported targets of 70% lower emissions by 2050 – thirty years from today – have been criticized by many environmentalists as ‘too little, too late, too far.’ Environmentalists argue that global shipping has not been serious about the change it is making each month or each year, and instead point to targets far in the future to put off taking the important steps required today.
Just as the recalcitrant car industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a more sustainable electric and autonomous future, perhaps the same is needed with global shipping.
It remains the one global industry standing out as a dinosaur relic of a bygone carbon age, whose fate now seems tied to that of the Wakashio. The Wakashio traveled thousands of miles across an ocean in a straight line, plunging directly into one of the largest and best preserved coral reef structures in the region and spilling its dark contents amid the fragile ecosystems surrounding it.
Striking the heart of a global biodiversity hotspot
The Wakashio – the largest class of vessel on the ocean and similar in size to the largest ever US Aircraft Carriers, the Nimitz Class – slammed into the topical coral reefs of the tiny volcanic island of Mauritius on July 25, and started breaking apart 12 days later, having scraped its giant single-hull against the pristine coral lagoon of the Indian Ocean island state for almost 1 kilometer during this period of its grounding as desperate islanders watched helplessly, calling out for international help.
The subsequent salvage and recovery attempt that was overseen by the ship’s owners and advised by the shipping regulator, the International Maritime Organization, based in London, suffered a series of catastrophic failures where specialist real-time SAR satellite analysis revealed that oil protection booms were insufficiently available and poorly deployed, allowing for hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic engine fuel to gush into the pristine lagoon. It is now estimated that up to 300,000 gallons of heavy engine fuel oil was leaked into the lagoon (50% higher than the ship owners had disclosed on 11 August), which is even more toxic than had it been a crude oil spill, given the sunny climate of Mauritius.
The location was in the midst of multiple UNESCO protected corals, turtle nesting grounds, mangrove forests, low lying ebony forests, grasslands and important fish breeding habitats, as well as the site of a famous Historic Napoleonic Battle with many wrecks still in the vicinity. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether any of these wrecks – which are highly protected and lain undisturbed for over two hundred years – have been impacted by the impact of the Wakashio and the subsequent oil spill. These areas had been highly protected from human interference for decades.
An industry slow to change, and too sure of itself
Had the global shipping industry moved away from such heavy-carbon fuels and also reinforced the hull of these large vessels to be double-strength – as the oil and gas industry had to do following the Exxon-Valdex crude oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989 – this disaster would perhaps have not been as bad. The location of the crash site and subsequent spill has put thousands of rare and endangered species found only around the crash site location now at risk of extinction as local NGOs in Mauritius race to save them, knowing that many of these iconic plants and trees – including Mauritius’ last remaining low lying endemic ebony forest – cannot be transported.
Questions also continue to be raised about the effects of heavy engine oil in the warmer tropical waters, which holds greater risk and toxicity than a leak of crude oil at that latitude. Single hull vessels carrying heavy fuel oil have been banned from Antarctica just South of Mauritius, as well as plans to phase them out in the Arctic. However, the disaster in Mauritius reveals many loopholes in international shipping, such as whether such heavy oil fuels should be banned altogether, and whether all vessels should be double-hulled to prevent industrial accidents of this scale.
Shipping industry: “we are doing enough”
What began as an innocuous grounding, quickly descended into the largest ecological crisis facing the Indian Ocean, characterized by failures of leadership for those responsible for the management and safety of the vessel and subsequent oil spill, where the massive self-organized volunteer effort had to save the island and its nature from even more destruction.
In a response to whether global shipping should shoulder greater responsibility for moving to less polluting alternatives, no comment was provided by the owner of the vessel, Japan-based Nagashiki Shipping Co Ltd.
Instead, Vice Chairman of INTERGARO, (International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners) Capt. Jay K. Pillai, stated “a priority will be to find clean fuel for shipping which the IMO has regulated. The shipping industry is required to reduce the CO2 emission by 40% by 2030 and by 70% by 2050 compared to 2008 levels and go carbon free in 21st century.”
Flags of Convenience at fault again – will the G20 act?
As the vessel is Japanese owned but Panama flagged, experts need to be flown over to conduct a full accident inspection and report. This complex loophole in international shipping regulations is adding even more confusion to a local situation where thousands of islanders volunteered to cut their own hair and make home made booms out of dried sugar cane grass and their clothing to protect the coastline of Mauritius.
This was particularly shocking to watch in a country that has positioned itself as the ‘Singapore of Africa’ with large and specialized sectors in financial services, IT, agriculture, textiles and tourism, and was an upper middle income country.
The G20 had promised strong action for financial reform following the 2008 and 2011 financial crises. However, they have avoided addressing flags of convenience in the shipping industry for over a decade.
Just as anger continues to mount in Beirut over how a Moldovan-flagged vessel could be responsible for over $15 billion of damage to the city, an even larger crisis could be brewing off the coast of Yemen with a 1 million barrel oil tanker starting to disintegrate and putting the entire region of the Red Sea at risk from what would be an even greater environmental catastrophe than the one in Mauritius. French President Emmanuel Macron rushed to support the Lebanese people following this accident, but was soon surrounded by angry Lebanese calling for reform.
‘Big Shipping’ Out Of Touch With A New Generation
Global shipping has historically described itself as ‘the engine of economic growth’ powering the world economy and shipping global goods. That’s a lot of ‘globals’ as globalization itself starts to retrench.
In a world where a younger generation is more sensitive to their carbon footprint and local manufacturing is opening up amid geopolitical tensions and the coronavirus pandemic, questions remain whether this industry represents the future.
In other historic polluting industries, the industry was unable to regulate itself, as seen with the emissions scandal from Volkswagen, which ended up costing the company $25 billion. The shipping industry has not even developed technologies that could independently be used to verify its emissions reporting for Sulfur emissions by the time these measures had been introduced (called scrubber technologies).
Global shipping continues to invest less than 2% of its revenue into the I.T. needed to ensure the safety of ordinary citizens around the world – the lowest ratio of any industry. The Banking industry, for example, invests over 10%, which have allowed them to discover new ways to reduce their carbon footprint.
With global tech giants like Amazon AMZN +4.1% starting to further backward integrate from delivery to storage to warehouse logistics and transportation, and with these tech giants being held to higher environmental standards than global shipping, is the writing on the world for such a polluting industry to continue in this way.
G20: a Climate and Leadership Crisis
While the world faces an ongoing coronavirus pandemic that reveals the structural inadequacies of the current approaches to global governance, the even bigger second wave of climate crisis is not being taken seriously enough by business and Government leaders as the world continues to overshoot their targets.
Even the Paris Agreement target itself – linked to 2C climate change that the global shipping industry refers to – will not be enough to save global coral reefs as a famous international scientific report showed. The ambitions have to be 25% greater still. The accident by the Wakashio has not helped.
There are clear actions that the G20 group of powerful nations can take. French President Macon has made the environment such a high priority of his presidential platform. Yet in the space of a few weeks, he has now become embroiled in two multi-billion dollar maritime accidents rooted in how the global shipping industry is regulated, with a ticking timebomb waiting in the Red Sea with an abandoned 1 million barrel oil tanker about to disintegrate unleashing an even greater disaster across the region. The world will see how seriously President Macron is willing to take on such reforms.
In the meanwhile, the disaster of the Wakashio continues to stretch out into a 25th day as the Mauritian Government and salvage team considers sinking the vessel in the heart of one of the regions main whale breeding spots, one of the best in the Indian Ocean.
The global shipping industry has remained silent on what actions should be taken. Not exactly sending a strong signal that the world can trust them to do the right thing if left on their own. With this silence, the moral authority of the shipping industry appears to be going in the same direction as the Wakashio – to the bottom of the sea.