Sustainable Port Planning: three drivers for change

Photo by Benjamin Le Roux

Almost two years ago I received a question from an advocate for sustainable change in the infrastructure sector. More specifically; the question targeted port planning. This question kept lingering around in the back of my mind, bothering me ever since. At first glance it seems to be a simple question. But there’s a lot more to it once you dive deeper. In the many conversions, with representatives of port authorities, infrastructure planning scholars, financial specialists, maritime contractors and public agencies I tried to identify pieces of the puzzle. Combining this with scholarly literature, the answer to the posed question seems to be getting shape. So, what is this question this advocate for sustainable change asked me? Sweet and sharp he asked me;

What is driving change in port development?

To answer this question it would be helpful to identify viable ways for the port sector to contribute to the sustainable development goals. Sustainable development in the sector could range from applying nature based solutions in port (re)development, facilitating energy transitions at large, enable the shipping sector to reduce their impact or influencing hinterland transport in a sustainable way (see for more solutions).

The interesting part of al conversations I had about this, is that I didn’t meet any fundamental resistance, but despite that, practical barriers were common. All stakeholders seem to be in favour of sustainable port development, but the bottom line is that port business should stay financially healthy. I’ll skip the details behind this, but this notion showed three major fields to consider to drive sustainable change in port planning. These are; regulatory pressure, social licence to operate and business performance.

First; regulatory pressure.

This is perhaps the most direct way of pushing for change in port planning. Regulatory pressure can come from permitting processes, (inter-)national environmental regulations, financial regulation and oversight or legal restrictions with regards to port mandate or responsibilities. A common argument made by port authorities refers to a level playing field and the ability to run a sound business. If regulatory restrictions apply locally, and competing ports don’t suffer from such restrictions, it could hurt their market position. This results in a general notion that sustainable progress can be made through regulatory pressure when those two conditions are met; business remains healthy and a level playing field is secured. Apart from these barriers as seen from the port sector itself, regulatory changes often involve long processes requiring extensive dialogue, much time and a lot of resources before implementation can take place.

Second; social license to operate.

Perhaps the most striking example of a ‘social licence to operate’ is the current debate about the use of coal-energy. In various parts of the world public opinion is turning against the use of coal. This makes both politicians and investors reluctant to stay in support of it, even when financial profitability would not be an issue. Port authorities feel their vulnerable position in this discusion and other debates. Ports are places where heavy industry, piles of coal, oil-tanks, ship emissions and various other undesired phenomena are all visible to the public eye. Even when regulatory compliant, opposition can grow rapidly, eroding public support. The latter can transpire to falling political and financial support (the Blackrock press release of going green is a great example of this). Turning this around, it means that ports need to stay ahead of this curve and ensure the public notices their efforts and witnesses positive developments as proof of a port serving society, and not vice versa.

Third; business performance.

The two former fields, regulatory pressure and the social licence to operate, can be seen as external drivers. This last one is an internal one. Sustainable development is often considered to be costly, but in many cases the opposite it true. If we step back a bit this becomes apparent. Sustainability is widely embraced as it brings long term value for society. That value can also bring direct revenues for port authorities. Sometimes this is straightforward, in other cases smart institutional and financial arrangements are needed. Examples are; intelligent led-lighting can reduce energy consumption, improve safety and security and reduce light nuisance for all kinds of species. Such a sustainable investment can deliver a straightforward return on investment through energy savings. Replanting mangroves along the coastline can reduce dredging cost in navigation channels, but also support the local fishing community and drive real estate prices. In the latter case smart arrangements can help to ensure compensation for the party that incurs the cost for this investment.

With these three fields, regulatory pressure, societal licence to operate and business performance, the playing field for sustainable port planning is largely determined. These fields are not to be seen as independent, interdependencies are all around. This means port authorities need to move strategically and involve the actor-networks they operate in. The good news is that there are plenty of good examples of sustainable solutions to shape sustainable port development. Many of those solutions are helpful in achieving regulatory compliance, improving support of the public and driving port revenues in general. Having said all this, the question asked by the advocate for sustainable change in the infrastructure sector, received some answering, but further suggestion are always welcomed. So what do you think?

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