With some 80% of world trade carried at sea, the maritime industry will need to transform and adapt to climate change fast to withstand its impacts, or suffer world trade risks, a UN representative has said.
“The hardest hit areas, coastlines, will affect us all since the lion’s share of trade itself is managed through international shipping and ports,” said UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) chief of policy and legislation Regina Asariotis at the sidelines of the recent COP24 global climate summit in Katowice, Poland.
Ms Asariotis, who was speaking at a joint event hosted by UNCTAD and the International Maritime Organisation, said that all maritime stakeholders must face up to that fact, as it has bearing on the trade and sustainable development prospects of all countries, but particularly developing and vulnerable small island developing states (SIDS). 60% of goods loaded and 63% of goods unloaded in developing countries.
SIDS have small land mass, economies, and populations and their remote locations make them highly vulnerable to external shocks. At the same time, their coastal transport infrastructure – seaports and airports – are critical lifelines for external trade, food, energy, and tourism, as well as for disaster risk response.
Dual angle of the climate challenge
Ms Asariotis explained the double-edged nature of the climate challenge facing both the maritime and whole transport sector. On one hand, maritime transport impacts the environment, through pollution and CO2 emissions. On the other, rising sea levels and extreme weather – such as storms, record temperatures, heatwaves, droughts, and devastating rain – will affect maritime transport and infrastructure in major ways.
This is anticipated as early as 2030, when the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming point is likely to be reached, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in October.
The potential for damage, delay and disruption across closely-linked global supply chains means addressing climate change’s impact on key transport infrastructure is of strategic economic importance.
“The impacts may be severe, and given what is at stake, we have no time to lose,” said Ms. Asariotis.
Race against time
While goals and aspirations set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change and informed by the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development – both adopted by the international community in 2015 – mean that emissions need to be cut drastically, there is little over a decade left to keep global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold.
In maritime transport the international debate and policy action regarding climate change focuses mainly on mitigation, or the reduction and control of greenhouse gas emissions.
“What is needed are effective adaptation measures and policies, implemented now to manage the direct and indirect impacts on maritime transport infrastructure and services,” she said. “Changes in sea-level, temperature, humidity, precipitation and extreme storms, floods and other climatic factors are likely to affect seaports as well as all connecting transport infrastructure and the global network of supply-chains. Understanding the impacts and developing effective adaptation measures is critical.”
Results of a recent global port industry survey on climate change impacts and adaptation carried out by UNCTAD suggest, however, that much more needs to be done.
Although most respondent ports had been impacted by weather-related events, there were significant gaps in information available to seaports of all sizes and across regions, with implications for effective climate risk assessment and adaptation planning.
"There is a need for better data and information and for mainstreaming climate change considerations into ordinary planning and operations processes," Ms Asariotis concluded.