Building a climate-smart future for global trade

Building a climate-smart future for global trade

Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem |

Climate change discussion nearly always focuses on the impact it will have if left unchecked. But if we’re to navigate these uncertain times we need to change the business narrative on climate change.

Climate change disasters have tripled in the past 30 years. Ocean temperatures will rise and decimate marine biodiversity. Equatorial regions will become inhospitably hot with food and water sources becoming scarce. Rising water levels elsewhere will wipe out coastal communities.

But if we’re to navigate these uncertain times to our benefit, we need to change the business narrative on climate change. Many of these climate-driven changes are already happening and won’t be quick (or possible) to resolve. Exploring how we can adapt to our changing world to maintain order and prevent further damage, however, is something that’s within our power.

Assessing the landscape

I find myself in a privileged position of influence at this crucial turning point in our existence. DP World’s role in keeping trade flowing across the world, even to the most remote communities, is fundamental to life and work as we know it.

Yet it is also an industry reliant on a healthy planet – namely, healthy waterways.

Around 90% of the goods moved around the world every day are transported by shipping vessels – a system dependent on natural waterways like oceans and rivers. However, recent droughts in vital water trading lanes like the Rhine, Panama Canal and Mississippi have contributed to a 63% jump in economic damage compared to the 20-year average – all because ships couldn’t physically pass through these routes anymore.

El Nino, a climate pattern that causes spikes in surface water temperatures in the Eastern Pacific, will only exacerbate this increasingly common occurrence. Its secondary impact of influencing extreme weather like flooding and hurricanes destabilises our industry too. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 forced three US Ports (New Orleans, Mobile and South Louisiana) to completely shut down operations for four months. At the time, these ports handled nearly half of the country’s agricultural exports, triggering huge disruption for consumers, not to mention wastage.

Climate change and water are intrinsically linked, therefore we, as a business, must adapt now for future climate disruption. How we evolve as a logistics business must be tailored so that we can be agile to these unpredictable water conditions and, where possible, reduce the impact we have on the world’s oceans and rivers so as not to exacerbate the issues further. After all, the maritime shipping industry currently accounts for 3% of total carbon emissions; there’s no denying the environmental consequences of our work to date.

Alone, DP World can’t stop climate change. But as a cog in an industry of global influence, I believe we do have a duty to lead by example, adapting how we operate to sustain trade during these turbulent times and clean up our act.

Smarter, stronger, better

Implementing effective sustainability measures on a company-wide scale is about changing business priorities. For DP World, striving for zero environmental harm now underpins all our business decisions. This ensures that best practices and good environmental stewardship are embedded within our business processes on land and, crucially, at sea.

This takes many forms, with mitigation of our carbon footprint being the primary aim. For example, we’re currently in the process of electrifying all our ports through renewable energy sources, as evidenced by our first net zero carbon terminal, Rotterdam World Gateway, and our Port in Antwerp, which now runs on 100% green energy.

Our vision to become an end-to-end logistics enabler means these initiatives can be rolled out throughout our international supply chain network, so customers who work with us can make greener shipping choices too. Innovating on an end-to-end basis also helped us identify the need for more diverse trade routes so we’re not relying so heavily on waterways, which are going to become increasingly unreliable. Our investment in rail connections in Europe, a high-capacity, carbon-efficient alternative to trucking, was informed by this thinking and will make our services more resilient and greener throughout the region.

Making climate change mitigation a foundational element of our business strategy is also influencing our partnerships, forcing us to expand our outlook on the industry at large so these changes can make greater change. Take our role as a partner to the Mærsk McKinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping: we’re feeding into potentially life-changing research that will reduce the carbon footprint of the entire maritime shipping sector while maintaining trade levels.

Working with, not against, nature

If we’re to reduce the likelihood of further environmental damage as a business, we also have a responsibility to work with nature to futureproof it against our impact and that of escalating climate change incidents.

We’ve been smart about the nature-based solutions we’re investing in to aid this endeavour. Through the Mangrove Restoration Potential Mapping tool, for example, our teams have strategically planted 160,000 mangrove seedlings throughout the UAE, Ecuador, the Philippines, Pakistan and Mozambique. Mangroves have the twofold benefit of acting as a natural carbon-capturing solution while protecting coastal areas and communities from rising water levels (and, potentially, some of our trade routes too).

Similarly, our commitment to the Living Seawalls project in the UAE and wider region will create specially designed coral structures that will help marine nature thrive while protecting our ports and the surrounding community from flooding.

However, the most effective measure businesses can take – in our sector and elsewhere – is to educate future generations with green skills. Demand for these in the workplace is growing rapidly and it’s our only hope of maintaining and improving how we conduct ourselves as communities and through our work. My Group Chief Sustainability Officer, Maha AlQattan, recently explained the incredible value we can gain from investing in green skills education and how it will transform our world for the better.

Until recently, my business has been a producer of greenhouse gas emissions; a significant contributor to the climate change crisis affecting us all. But, as The World Trade Report argues, this also puts us in a position to be a force multiplier for positive climate actions. We can adapt, influence and reduce the negative impact of our business and our broader industry because of our scale – and that’s exactly what we’re doing today.