A crusader to reduce risk, increase resilience in era of climate change

The term climate change has been spewed around quite often in recent years – and for good reason. It poses significant challenges to various industries worldwide, and the maritime sector is no exception. As sea levels rise and more frequent weather events change ocean currents, it creates a domino effect; implicating shipping, fishing and other nautical operations. 

Vinod Thomas, a globally renowned economist, takes a serious view on climate change and is on a path to educate and influence both the public and policymakers. He is currently a visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (NUS), and a distinguished fellow at the Asian Institute of Management. He is a former senior vice president at the World Bank, and director general at the Asian Development Bank. He has authored 17 books.

“I grew up in the state of Kerala in India, which has a 590 km coastline and a rich history of maritime trade, and maritime dynamics with arrival of people from the Middle East in the first century AD and the Portuguese in the 15th, impacting the lives and livelihoods of the coastal communities. 

“The coastline of Kerala is among the most stunning in the world, but the iconic beaches, such as those in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram and the great trading cities of Kochi and Kozhikode, are under severe threat from environmental destruction and climate change. 

“My interest in the maritime industry is both in terms of understanding the ecological dangers today and finding solution this sector offers.”

For Vinod, climate change is an alarming issue. 

“Climate change is the gravest development risk facing humanity. The climate problem exacerbates other daunting challenges of shrinking water resources, financial stress, biodiversity extinction and involuntary migration. It is multifaceted and multi-dimensional, with a complex web of inter relations that has global warming at the center of it all.” 

This has evoked a fire deep in Vinod’s heart to pursue the study of climate change with a great sense of urgency. 

A unification of passion and career pursuits

As an economist by way of training at the University of Chicago, Vinod has had an illustrative career path, working in several positions at the World Bank. He started off as a principal economist for the Colombia Division in 1985, climbing his way up to the position of director general and senior vice president of the Independent Evaluation Group at the World Bank Group in 2006, before the end of his tenure in 2011. 

“My work at the World Bank Group spanned operations, finance, policy dialogues with countries, evaluation and research. I have done a bit of all, but one highlight of my tenure would be my initiative, as director general for Independent Evaluation, to do a series of evaluations of the World Bank’s role and effectiveness in the environment and climate change area. This work has proved crucial in making the institution’s interventions in this area more effective.” 

A natural switch to academia

Vinod is currently involved in academia. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Asian Institute of Management, Manila, and has been teaching for the past six years as visiting professor at NUS. Having come from a family of teachers, entering academia was of second nature to him. 

“My father taught psychology and my mother taught biology in Indian universities. During my time at the World Bank, I realized that there were many policy and financial solutions to problems, but lacked political will and public support. This led me to the realization about the all-important part education can play in changing mindsets and bringing about change, and what better way to realize this potential than teaching?”

As visiting professor at NUS, Vinod developed his signature course, The Principles and Practice of Risk and Resilience. Blending it together with his activism, he added a component on climate change that has definitely ticked the right boxes of his students. 

“One of the greatest insights from this class would be the challenge posed by the obsession of mainstream economics with short term GDP, which has led to celebrating any type of growth – even carbon-intensive growth – in favor of taking steps to deduct the spill-over damages from the growth process. These are real-world challenges that are of great importance to the direction society is taking.”

Apart from students and the occasional academia enthusiast, Vinod believes that management from maritime companies would stand to benefit from attending the course, too. 

“Leadership in a maritime company would have clear recognition of risks ranging from the disruption of supply chains to geopolitical conflicts laid out in their calculus. The bigger challenge is to put in place a resilience mechanism before disaster strikes, and to get corporate support to offer such spending that might not always be the popular choice to make. That is the role of leadership, and this program provides principles and experiences in this respect.”

In 2022, Vinod received the NUS Award for Excellence in Teaching, as a mark of honor for his significant contributions to the school’s academic excellence. 

Elucidating the need for action

Apart from being a lecturer, Vinod has authored 17 books and numerous peer-reviewed journal articles on macroeconomic, social and environmental issues. His most recent book, Risk and Resilience in the Era of Climate Change, sheds light on the immediate and long-term actions that must be taken to deal with the looming issue of climate change. 

Mainstream media has portrayed climate change to be exacerbated by issues such as deforestation, meat production and extracting fossil fuels, but the maritime industry actually has a large part to play in the negative impact of our climate. 

“80 percent of the world’s trade is done through maritime shipping. Shipping exacerbates climate change by releasing air pollution, generated by diesel engines that burn high sulphur content fuel, which produces sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates. The release of carbon dioxide emissions from ocean-going ships also feeds directly into global warming.” 

However, according to Vinod, the ocean can also be part of the solution to all these problems that the world is currently facing. 

“The ocean is the lungs of the planet, and the largest carbon sink that could block the impacts of climate change. After all, the ocean generates 50 percent of the oxygen we need, absorbs 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and captures 90 percent of the excess heat from emissions.”

In his book, Vinod elucidates on how individuals, businesses and governments need to anticipate and start a ‘build forward’ mindset. 

“The agenda is an immediate one. Climate danger no longer lies over the horizon. It is vividly shown by the extreme weather, which has been aggravated by climate change and already destabilizing energy supplies and creating shortages. This, coupled with the demand for more cooling during unseasonably hot summers, is stoking energy insecurity, prompting even greater fossil fuel use – as Europe and South Asia have seen in recent months – driving up effluents and worsening the climate crisis. 

“If this continues, “circuit breakers” such as a cross-country moratorium on new oil, gas, and coal projects will be needed – and accompanied by a very aggressive push for renewable sources – to avert a full-blown climate catastrophe.” 

Nonetheless, there is still room for change. Vinod shares how companies within the maritime industry can do their part to help reduce carbon footprint.

“The first line of action must be moving away from traditional fossil fuels to existing clean sources like solar and wind and new zero-emission energy sources, such as hydrogen, ammonia, methanol. Second, the industry can champion ocean habitats such as seagrasses and mangroves, capturing emissions far more efficiently than terrestrial forests. Their ability to store carbon makes mangroves highly valuable in fighting climate change. Third, the ocean is a great source of renewable energy. Off-shore and ocean energy, derived from wind, water and tides, can be great avenues for effluent-free energy.”

A less popular choice for the greater good

One may assume the path of getting to carbon neutral to be a costly and painful one, however, Vinod notes that economic profits pursued in isolation from concerns over sustainability is not possible, in this day and age.

“Environmental and climate sustainability have now become necessary conditions for ensuring long term profitability. The early movers in seeking net zero will secure a comparative advantage and would be rewarded. Financial planning must take on board zero carbon goals, and technology must be leveraged upon. But more than anything else, the vision, mission and thought leadership at companies must be to drive low carbon growth.”

Small, simple acts, such as cutting fuel wastage, slashing the speed of ships or by even reshaping or retrofitting vessels for greater flexibility can contribute significantly to becoming carbon neutral. 

“The maritime shipping industry is the backbone of global supply chains, lives and livelihoods. It must set the tone for a low carbon growth path for the sustainable future of the oceans and the world’s economy, if not for the industry’s own survival.”

Photo credit: Vinod Thomas

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