Jörgen Warborn on his journey from EU campaigner to EU shipping legislator

Swedish MEP Jörgen Warborn steered new legislation to curb shipping emissions, hailed as a breakthrough for both climate and trade. Does it go far enough to meet the European Union’s 2050 eco goals?
Jörgen Warborn at a press conference after the European Parliament approved legislation to curb shipping emissions | Photo: European Parliament

By Sean Craig

Sean Craig is a business and investigative journalist who has contributed to The Daily Beast, the Financial Post, BuzzFeed News and Vice.

31 Oct 2022

In 1994, Jörgen Warborn was a graduate student in business at the International University of Monaco when Sweden announced it would hold a referendum on joining the European Union.

The then-25-year-old paused his studies and easy access to Provençal wines, and headed home to Halland County on Sweden’s western coast. Trading his textbooks for campaign flyers, Warborn became an organiser for the local Ja till Europa campaign. He urged old friends, neighbours and anyone he ran into to tick the ‘Yes’ box.

When referendum day rolled around, 52.3 per cent of the Swedish electorate voted to join the EU; in Halland, it was a slightly more emphatic 58.4 per cent. The rest is EU history, part of a transformative year for the bloc that saw Austria and Finland deliver affirmative Ja and Joo votes respectively, while Norwegians opted for Nei.

In 2019, Warborn was elected to the body he so assiduously campaigned for his country to join. “Almost 30 years after [the referendum], being here in Parliament is kind of full circle,” he tells The Parliament.

Today, Warborn is celebrating again. With 451 votes in favour, 137 against and 54 abstentions, the European Parliament has overwhelmingly approved legislation to curb shipping emissions – a major mobility initiative that he steered as rapporteur.

The pro-EU campaigner is now EU lawmaker. But it’s been a long journey.

The pro-EU campaigner is now EU lawmaker

Long before terms such as “scale,” “pivot” and “unicorn” became the lingo of Silicon Valley, Warborn was a tech teen mapping out his own entrepreneurial future.

At 17, he and a friend realised their digital skills had a market value. “It was ‘86; we were basically coders and did software production for local companies,” Warborn says. University followed – with a break to help organising for the ‘Yes’ campaign in Halland. “Then I went on to found a couple of IT companies in wifi and in app production,” he says.

Warborn could have stayed on the entrepreneurial path. He lived in Stockholm for a few years, ran an ad agency and sat on the board of Företagarna, Sweden’s largest business association. But Halland County pulled him into politics again.

He moved back to his hometown of Varberg not long after the turn of the millennium. Starting his own family prompted a desire to get involved in public service, and Warborn chaired the local children’s and education committee for four years.

In 2011, he became a municipal councillor in Halland Regional Council; three years later, he was elected to Sweden’s Riksdag as a member of the Moderate Party.

In 2019, when Warborn arrived in Parliament as a member of the European People’s Party, his colleagues recognised his tech and business background and made him vice-coordinator of the international trade committee (INTA).

Warborn also found himself on the special committee on artificial intelligence, and the investigative committee studying Pegasus spyware. Then came the less obvious appointment – the one-time teen coder was handed a major shipping file.

In October 2021, Warborn was made rapporteur for the FuelEU Maritime proposal, the European Commission’s plan to reduce shipping emissions as part of the Fit for 55 green transition package.

Previous experience gained while working on the merger of Halland’s ports as chair of Varberg’s municipal board helped. It has not, however, lightened the rapporteur’s workload, with a year spent hearing out Member States, shipping industry stakeholders, environmental organisations, MEPs and more.

The legislation Warborn brought forward went further than the Commission’s original proposed cuts to the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of shipping fuel of 13 per cent by 2035 and 75 per cent by 2050 compared to 2020 levels. MEPs voted in favour of a two per cent target for 2025, 20 per cent for 2035, and 80 per cent for 2050.

MEPs also voted in favour of a two per cent shipping industry sub-target for e-fuels – fossil fuel replacements such as renewable hydrogen made with solar, wind or other emissions-neutral electricity.

“This is the beginning of the end for fossil fuels in Europe’s shipping industry,” says Delphine Gozillon, sustainable shipping officer at Transport & Environment, arguably the most influential NGO and research group in the field. “The green shipping fuel mandate will kickstart the production of hydrogen-based fuels by providing investment security for fuel producers.”

“This is the beginning of the end for fossil fuels in Europe’s shipping industry”

While Transport & Environment welcomed the vote, it warned that FuelEU Maritime “doesn’t go far enough,” urging a more aggressive e-fuel target of least six per cent by 2035 and a more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction target of 100 per cent by 2050.

Several Member States agree: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Warborg’s native Sweden welcomed FuelEU Maritime last year, but stressed in a joint letter to the Council of the European Union that “higher GHG reduction targets… are needed to achieve the EU’s climate intermediate and 2050 ambitions” and called for more incentives to “accelerate the use of clean and renewable fuels in maritime transport.”

A draft of a submission by the European Commission to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations body working on its own GHG strategy, proposes that greenhouse gas lifecycle emissions from international shipping “phase out by 2050 at the latest”. The document, dated 3 October 2022 and seen by The Parliament, contains tracked changes which show the lesser goal of “pursuing efforts towards 70 per cent by 2050” crossed out.

Warborn has no problem with the EU advocating more aggressive positions on the international stage. “If IMO comes up with a global solution, that of course is the best because the maritime sector is truly a global business,” he says. “This will force IMO to sit down, talk and negotiate towards an end solution, which would be very hard without something concrete from the EU to start with.” (The IMO has been criticised for being slow to act, including by Transport & Environment).

According to the Commission, shipping accounts for 2.9 per cent of global emissions caused by human activities, and emissions in the sector are projected to rise from 90 per cent of 2008 levels to 130 per cent by 2050.

In the EU, where 75 per cent of all trade and 30 per cent of all goods travel by sea shipping, the sector represented three to four per cent of total CO2 emissions in 2019.

"A majority of conservatives, liberals and social democrats in the European Parliament want to relieve the shipping industry of its obligations in climate and environmental protection, although the European Union officially advocates stricter requirements on the international stage,” says Jutta Paulus, the Green MEP who was a shadow rapporteur on the file. While amendments with more aggressive targets were introduced, all were rejected at plenary.

Several exemptions were introduced over the course of the last year, such as one for ships below 5,000 gross tonnes. These earned further objections from MEPs who wanted a more aggressive outcome, while Warborn says they were added to protect smaller firms.

“This is basically to make sure, which we often do in European Parliament, that the SME [small and medium-sized enterprises] part of the sector will be less affected because, with comparatively limited resources, they can face steeper economic burdens under rules and regulations,” he says.

Beyond the greenhouse gas targets and e-fuels, Warborn sees technology – which he has watched all his life and now studies on his committee duties – as offering potential that’s not outlined in FuelEU Maritime.

“Digitalisation, especially artificial intelligence and machine learning, will be of key importance here with shipping”

“Innovation will help us tremendously when it comes to the climate issue,” he says. “Digitalisation, especially artificial intelligence and machine learning, will be of key importance here with shipping.”

The IMO, for example, has said a shipping route’s CO2 emissions could be cut by 10 per cent simply by improving the navigational path and scheduling, much like in the airline industry. Researchers have also begun to study how machine learning models can predict fuel consumption to reduce shipping emissions.

Warborn is reflective of the many roles he has filled, taking him from the local council to federal parliament and on to Brussels. Few would have tipped him to lead one of the bloc’s major shipping and transport files. But the threads tie together neatly. He will now represent the European Parliament in negotiating final legislation with EU Member States.

“Being responsible for legislation that’s important to climate and trade – it’s a great honour,” he says.

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