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Glasgow

Five minutes to midnight.

Katharine Palmer, LR’s Global Sustainability Manager, talks about her appointment as Shipping Lead for the United Nation’s (UN) High Level Climate Champions.

As the Glasgow meeting of COP 26 approaches, perhaps the most important COP meeting since the Paris Agreement was finalised at COP 21, shipping needs to increase its efforts and raise ambition if the industry is to keep the 1.5C goal and achieve the 5% point of zero-carbon fuel by 2030, in order to set the industry on course for net-zero by 2050.

Palmer’s appointment as Shipping lead for the UN High Level Climate Champions is a coup for LR and dovetails precisely with Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s mission of “enhancing the safety of life and property at sea and on land and in the air.”

The Foundation’s Ruth Boumphrey, Director of Strategic Programmes, acclaimed the appointment. “The High Level Climate Champion’s team is bringing forward commitments across civil society to our shared climate goals. We are proud to support both the HLCC and Katharine as they move the shipping sector towards safe decarbonisation as part of COP26 and beyond.”

Palmer’s appointment is a front-facing commitment that will involve collaboration on completely new initiatives and advancing existing commitments into action in global shipping’s decarbonisation drive. It is also likely to provide LR with new arenas and opportunities to demonstrate its experience in sustainability issues.

It is a key moment for Palmer, who read Environmental Science at Leeds University followed by a master’s in Environmental Biogeochemistry at Newcastle. Since then, she has gained wide experience, with a spell at BP, before joining LR where she has held various positions.

Now seconded to the UN programme for three days a week, Palmer will be aligning the new role with her day job at LR which focuses on supporting the LR Maritime decarbonisation Hub to accelerate a safe and sustainable transition. Now, though, her close engagement with the UNFCCC’s Race to Zero campaign, which now covers more than 15% of the global economy will undoubtedly support new LR initiatives within a shipping context and encourage shipping players to join the Race to Zero.

Sustainability strategies widen

Although shipping is her key focus, Palmer highlighted developments in other key sectors, revealing that the Climate Action Pathways, first published in 2019 and updated regularly, sets out the 2030 Breakthroughs published in a special report at the beginning of this year. The 2030 Breakthroughs cover more than 20 sectors of the global economy, articulating the imminent milestones that must be delivered by supply-side and demand-side companies, investors, policymakers and civil society through radical collaboration to achieve a zero carbon world in time.

On shipping, Palmer outlined some of the immediate challenges that the sector faces as it embarks on a nine- year journey to the 2030 tipping point. She cited the wide diversity of maritime transport suppliers – from some of the world’s largest publicly-owned shipping groups which must answer to increasingly concerned shareholders, right through to small privately owned shipping companies, often family ventures, with limited resources available for anything other than day-to-day business.

“Shipping will inevitably have first movers and followers … this is already evident,” Palmer explained. “But the direction of travel is clear and was underlined by the IPCC’s recent report on the global climate emergency. Shipping decarbonisation’s process is not merely a ‘nice-to-have’ – it’s an urgent imperative. And it’s already five minutes to midnight.”

Widening arena

Despite the scale of shipping’s fuel-related challenges, however, Palmer is optimistic. She drew attention to various encouraging developments recently.

Whereas there are a number of oft-quoted multinational retailers who feature consistently in the environmental spotlight – IKEA, Walmart, Nike – there is now a growing number of major charterers, some of shipping’s other most important customers, which are adopting proactive environmental strategies across their supply chains. Unlike the retailers, their names are far less familiar. However, they include some of the world’s largest trading houses, commodity giants, miners, food companies, energy suppliers, and agricultural corporations.

Palmer went further, highlighting new initiatives in some unlikely sectors she is providing support to, NHS Ocean, for example, a think tank established voluntarily by medical practitioners to support NHS England in its drive to raise sustainability along its supply chains. One of the UK’s largest procurers, NHS England imports vast quantities of pharmaceutical and health-related products on container services from Asia and the US.

As an aside, Palmer noted the irony of the vast quantity of asthma inhalers, manufactured in China, which are prescribed in UK doctors’ surgeries and hospitals every day. The inhalers are used to treat respiratory ailments, often made worse by poor air quality. Using container lines with strong sustainability programmes on the world’s largest liner trade between Asia and Europe, therefore, makes eminently good sense.

So, if Palmer has one key message, what is it? “Well … the shock disruption caused by the pandemic has meant that we have all had to react suddenly, virtually overnight, to stay safe and continue our work and our lives. The pace of change required needs to be ramped up, this is a climate crisis which requires an urgent response, and commitments need to be turned into immediate action.

In conclusion, she cited one deeply disturbing extract from the IPCC report: “Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level."

Horizons September 2021

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