Friday, 25 May 2012

A marine Klondike?

I’m deep in the Charlemagne building at the very heart of the European Commission in Brussels. It’s European Green Week and I was the warm-up act at the oceans session first thing this morning. A circular chamber with huge concentric rings of seats, translation booths, electronic gismos: cameras, fancy screens and microphones that really work. The eclectic audience ranged from senior EU officials to a busload of school kids; “keep it simple and visual” I had been told and duly obliged. The formula seemed to work and I’ve given radio interviews with Portuguese and Latvian stations and a slot with Croatian TV. Ahh, the wonders of Europia!

Yesterday I was in Gothenburg at the European Maritime Day; another presentation, a different topic and a different audience. This was followed by a quick 30 min shuttle flight to Copenhagen and a stampede of the Brusselcrats (not all from the EU) across Copenhagen airport for the connecting flight to Brussels where I got to the hotel at ten thirty to finish my presentation for today. I guess I’ll need an extra coffee after my flight back to Edinburgh tonight!

So what is all the fervour about? Europe really does seem to have discovered its seas. There are two sides to the coin however, and the two sides face in different directions though they depend on the same substance. The maritime side, represented by DG Mare (the Commission Directorate General responsible for marine policy), is focusing on blue growth; ‘sustainable growth’ is the catchphrase though by definition growth cannot be sustained for ever – and right now it’s feeling a bit wobbly. Let’s call it ‘growth from sustainable use of the sea’ (now I’m feeling happier). The other side is environmentalism, represented by DG Environment, largely under the banner of the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, two pieces of legislation that are transforming management of Europe’s aquatic environment. These two sides of the coin are like Yin and Yang; the softer, more feminine energy of ‘environment’ and the aggressive male energy of ‘maritime’. Like yin and yang, both are mutually dependent and need to seek harmony. No, I haven’t become a hippy; it really is like that; I even noticed that the male/female ratio was different in the two meetings, as was the kind of language employed. But I am digressing now…

The gist of the Maritime Agenda is blue growth and much of the excitement is about renewable energy and the technology needed to exploit it. The numbers flying around are pretty big - €10.4bn annual investment by 2020 - and the whole thing has the feeling of a vaguely orderly Klondike. Marine biotech and aquaculture are clear runners up. I attended a session on blue technology and this, disappointingly, turned out to be dominated by jaded shipbuilders behaving like kids who had their sweets stolen while they were squabbling over who had more. OK, I am being unfair but ships are hardly built in Europe anymore; lower costs and better lines of credit have swept the business to South East Asia and cooperation between builders in Europe is too little and too late. Worse still, given the current situation of international trade, there is a big overcapacity in the global fleet. The construction bubble has burst. Ships are still being delivered and orders so far in 2012 have plummeted to the lowest level on record. There are cash flow problems, risks of seizures by banks and no new lines of credit.

But this is where the blue-green agenda kicks in thanks to some yin mixing with the yang (a yin and tonic maybe?). The entire global fleet is out of date; hopelessly inefficient and pumping out dirty flue gases. This can all be resolved by better designs and modern technology leading to 30-40% less fuel use and, with scrubbers, very low emissions. Opportunities exist for technology development but the roadblock of credit lines remains. Even if the credit starts to flow, it would take 25 years to make the fleet more environmentally friendly.

So there is little cheer from traditional maritime industries, indeed there is a danger that existing knowhow will be lost in Europe. Nevertheless, there was huge optimism but much of this came from the ‘interface’ between the yin of environment and the yang of technology. But the sea is becoming crowded and there are many demands for exclusive access or property rights to sea areas for activities like renewables, aquaculture, fishing, transport, mining, recreation and conservation. There were many discussions about ‘marine spatial planning’ (MSP); the area where I contributed a short presentation based on our work from the EU KnowSeas project and its fellow projects MESMA and ODEMM. The MSP process has only been developed over the last decade; some 20 countries are actively engaged and four of these plus the USA have completed the first plans. Some 80-100 new MSPs are expected in the next decade, mostly in Western Europe, Australia and North America. A lot of new integrated science will be needed over this period.

So back to Brussels where the environmental yin was accompanied by a little yang; lots of exhibits from companies offering products and services sporting words such as ‘environmentally-friendly’, ‘low-energy’, and ‘sustainable’. I attended a session on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy which was predictably boisterous (yin and yang do not always meet in harmony). The fisheries sector speaker, Henrik Svenberg, President of the Swedish Fishermen's Federation, was one of the new generation of fishermen, keen on following an ‘ecosystem approach’  and open to dialogue. The big debate is on subsidies, discards and the regionalisation of fisheries management, enthusiastically supported by most of those present but controversial because it is splitting the EU Member States, roughly across a North-South divide. Watch this space; the debate is only just beginning! There were three of us from Scotland asking lots of questions. “Is there anyone not from Scotland?” said the chairman with a smile.

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