Are European ports heading towards a green transition?

The European Commission should be daring enough to push Europe’s ports into the green future
Photo: Alamy

By Paul van de Laar

Professor in urban history and head of history department, Erasmus School of History of Culture and Communication

28 Aug 2023

Through his 1958 novel Il Gattopardo, Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa gave the world the following maxim: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”  

The book lends its name to ‘Gattopardian transitions’ – a series of strategic measures implemented to keep existing processes in place. Such transitions will impact the future of Europe’s shipping and ports, as well as its green transition processes.  

At present, international maritime stakeholders acknowledge the need for structural change, but their intentions are to keep underlying systems and structures intact. Port authorities excuse themselves, claiming to have a restricted role in the mitigation of CO2 emissions beyond the port area. Their attitudes support strategies that prevent abrupt changes in the underlying structures of global shipping.  

The European Sea Ports Organisation, the principal point of contact between European seaports and the European institutions, has proposed measures to support greening policies of shipping and industry since the EU’s green transition goals were established. All proposed measures and innovations will improve water quality, reduce carbon emissions and other negative effects of pollution. But as it stands, no report or policy document on European ports in transition addresses the key question: how can we reduce the demand in global transport?   

Global trade is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and expected volumes are simply incompatible with the ambitions to reduce emissions by 2050. The consulting firm McKinsey has found that cargo ships will increase exponentially in size by the year 2067, to deal with an increase in trade of “two to five times” what it is today.  

Without a fundamental change in the underlying system – that would include global trade, shipping and port infrastructures – our supposed green transition will not be effective. 

European ports are ruled by globalised maritime transportation economic laws that prioritise economics in scale and efficiency, and global supply chains facilitated by flag of convenience business practices, financial and tax regulations. Ports, rivers and shipping canals are under pressure to spend public-funded resources to allow the largest generation of container vessels to enter their vulnerable ecosystems. 

On 7 July 2023, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) agreed to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by around 2050. Seas at Risk – an association of environmental organisations from across Europe – responded the same day, raising concerns about IMO’s failure to align global shipping with the Paris Agreement goal of maintaining global warming at 1.5C. Instead, IMO favours a process of slow adaptations – a strategy which has been undertaken since the problem of greenhouse gas first appeared on the agenda.   

European ports should co-operate to stop the curse of the increase in scale, which will be more beneficial in the fight against  climate change than existing measures which are strategically negotiated by slow, Gattopardian policies. 

 A majority of Europeans want to speed up the green transition, according to the latest Eurobarometer. I am afraid this will not happen if most politicians are trapped in Gattopardian transitions.  

To push Europe’s ports into the green future, the European Commission should be daring enough to stimulate critical, non-stakeholder-based research that advocates degrowth, as a concerted action programme against Gattopardian transitions.  

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