Red Tape and Greenwash

The law is an ass. Sometimes, maybe. Generally the global community regulates for the wider good and as a consequence so we can all enjoy a better quality of life. But breaking laws is endemic in our culture – avoiding taxes, breaking speed limits, trespassing – we’ve all done it. It’s where we believe we know better than the regulators, and that ‘red tape’ is there just to inhibit our personal and corporate growth.

That’s where VW – and, its speculated, other automotive players – have badly misjudged the pettiness of their crime, and the mood of the public. It wasn’t just ‘greenwash’, VW broke the law. The law is there to save lives.

There is a growing determination to tackle all emissions across society. Many blue-chip global corporations pledged this week to source 100% of their electricity from renewable energy to reduce CO2 emissions and to (their words) “seize the business benefits”. In the wake of the VW scandal they know this can’t be marketing puff but genuine commitment. Their confidence that it will pay off is  derived from the fact that all sorts of people – from Pope to pauper; from China to the USA – want to see all emissions reduced in absolute terms. VW playing fast and loose with regulators around NOx emissions is a warning. What we learn is that we the public don’t like being duped and commercially it’s a disaster. NOx is bad – implicated in a wide range of fatal illnesses from asthma to dementia. CO2 is worse

The  science  about CO2 can be distilled  pretty  succinctly:  if  the  global  economy  emits  more  than  ~1428Gt of CO2  we expose  ourselves  to  dangerous  climate  change. This will  cause  massive  damage  to  society  globally,  and, if  continued  unchecked,  bring about  the  extinction  of  our  species. We  know  the  total  CO2 budget  for  all  sectors,  and  we  know  that shipping’s  GHG  represents  approximately  2–3%.  If  shipping  is  to  remain  on  average  at 2–3% , the  total  emissions  that  can  be  emitted  are  33Gt. That’s it, right there – the target for shipping. With expectations for continued growth in world trade and corresponding transport demand, with GHG  emissions reducing fast from other sectors, then  shipping’s  GHG  intensity  (gCO2/t.nm)  would,  across  the  whole  sector,  need  to  reduce  by  about  85%. What a challenge.

There’s an absence of voluntary, ambitious action in the shipping sector to really address the challenge. There’s probably enough technology but not enough motivation.

I’ve had the dubious benefit of working for a decade in F1. The key driver (ahem) for delivering new solutions to the grid every fortnight is money. The most lucrative sponsorship revenues go to the top teams. If you fail to get cars out for the start of every race you get eye watering fines. Each team comprises hundreds of people from all disciplines – engineering and fuels, materials and aerodynamics, commerce and legal, psychology and fitness. It’s the financial hit that focuses everyone’s minds. If you aren’t on the grid you aren’t in the race.

Air pollution causes real harm. We, collectively, have been trying to limit the health damage caused by emissions over the last 50 years by putting pollution limits in place. By cheating VW's actions had tangible consequences. People died. Environmental regulations are not pesky “red tape” but essential mechanisms for saving our lives.

Reducing emissions by 85% from the shipping sector is a really exciting challenge - beats the pants of driving cars round and round in circles. If we want to introduce the F1 approach into shipping, which some of us are already doing, then fining those that fail to get their vehicles to the start of the race is maybe a good start. You can see it as regulation to be avoided or you can reframe it as a race for the glittering prizes of multiple business benefits.