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Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Ceiba – The Future of Carbonless Shipping

In February this year whilst visiting family living in Costa Rica, 3rd Space editor Mary Adams, re-visited the Ceiba project – the famous “jungle shipyard”. Here Danielle Doggett and her team are seeking to change one of the most polluting industries in the world – maritime shipping – by building a carbon-free cargo ship. Given Covid closed so many innovative projects across the world, we were curious how Ceiba had fared. Unique in its holistic community-based approach, Ceiba has integrated in multiple ways into the local Costa Rican community, one of the poorest in the country. Danielle and Mary sat down to discuss not only how the project managed to keep its doors open, but the ways it has continued to develop and thrive. They discussed the impact Ceiba is having on the industry itself as part of a groundswell of Green Business seeking to effect a larger paradigm shift.

3rd Space: Welcome, Dani. It’s good to see you again. From our brief tour, it’s clear a lot of development has occurred with Ceiba over the past two years, especially given Covid. 

Ceiba: Yes. When Covid hit us, it was of course very scary. We are such an employee-based company. We have a lot of people here at the shipyard working day to day next to each other. My Costa Rican co-founder, John Porras, worked tirelessly to keep our doors open, us all safe and legally compliant. We’re the biggest employer in this community which is one of the poorest in the country. This is a high stakes project. 

But despite multiple inspections, we did not have to shut our doors for even one day, or fire one person, thanks to John.

The Future of Carbonless Shipping 

3rd Space: When we originally spoke in 2020, you felt strongly that Ceiba would be a viable option for maritime cargo. A scalable template. What struck me is how you’re bringing social, environmental, and financial elements together holistically in this project. The financial aspect is usually the most challenging. Do you still feel Ceiba’s a viable financial model?

Ceiba: Absolutely! We recently announced we’re building a second ship, Pitaya (Dragon Fruit in Spanish). We have so much interest from shipping clients wanting this type of vessel that we already have framing stock [timber] drying in the yard for the second ship!

3rd Space: Congratulations. Does that mean that your investment model is working? And that you have enough Letters of Intent from prospective customers? 

Ceiba: Yes. We just opened investment opportunities to the public for Pitaya. We still need more Letters of Intent for the southbound voyage. But the response to the northbound has given us the incentive to build a second boat. I don’t envision all cargo ships as similar to 1920’s style wooden schooners! I’m not going back in time. But there are certain advantages to vessels like Ceiba. For example, good luck with trying to ship anything over 40 feet on a container vessel! We’re trying to ship our masts down from Canada right now. It’s been a nightmare. So Ceiba and her sister Pitaya will be able to ship materials of greater lengths.

Dani Doggett and partners at Ceiba

Disrupting the Status Quo: Emission-free Steel Cargo Ships

3rd Space: Could the demand for Ceiba’s zero carbon shipping stimulate future expansion in design? 

Ceiba: Yes. As a result of the Letters of Intent from prospective clients, I’m pursuing a whole other venture right now. It’s under the name of VER. It’s still in the ‘simmering-on-the-backburner’ phase but VER is based on a vision for emission-free steel container ships. 

Steel is obviously more complex in terms of sustainability. And I don’t have all the answers yet. But we are looking into green hydrogen steel.* Another set of challenges is the end of life of these vessels; known as “shipbreaking”….a whole other can of worms! But we’re committed to having responsible end of life practices. The International Labour Organisation describes shipbreaking as one of the most dangerous jobs in the world; usually carried out by children and migrant workers. This is a whole other opportunity for us to shine a light on a huge environmental and social issue in the shipping industry.**

With Sail Cargo Inc, our mission is to prove the value of clean shipping. I’m so proud of Ceiba because she’s already achieved that before she’s even sailed! VER is a separate project. 

Promises and Perils of Green Business

3rd Space: You were recently at COP26. Do you feel Ceiba has impacted the shipping industry itself?  Has there been any momentum in the regulation of fuel quality? Or talk about carbon-free steel shipping?

Ceiba: I don’t want to jump to conclusions and we’re not the only group pushing for change. But I can say that we’ve been invited at a political level, to present proposals for policy change that are disruptive to the status quo. 

John presented a motion on legislation for green shipping at an international conference on climate change in France. Costa Rica was very interested in this. A government representative lobbied on our behalf for this motion. Later they received calls from someone associated with Maersk. According to hearsay, this lobbyist later lost his job…. It’s very real. 

There are other things happening that may, or may not, be directly affected by what we are doing. The Aspen Institute launched an ambitious initiative under what is called coZEV – the Coalition of Zero Emission Vessels, a collaborative platform to accelerate zero emission shipping. Its statement reads that by 2040 companies that have signed on will only use emission-free transport options. That sounds pretty lofty, but Amazon, IKEA and Unilever have signed it.

3rd Space: That’s surprising.

Ceiba: Yes. And these are not shipping companies, they are product companies! Basically potential clients who are saying, ”Hey this is my Letter of Intent”. (smiles) So I’ve been in contact with the Aspen Institute. It’s early stages, but very encouraging. 

3rd Space: It seems Ceiba is putting a wedge into a tightly connected ‘universe’ by opening up the possibility of clean shipping; especially given 80% of the goods we use in the global north are shipped.

The Ceiba Shipyard in Costa Rica

Effecting Systemic Change:  Self – Empowerment or Legislation? 

3rd Space: Things have got a lot worse since we last spoke in terms of the impact of carbon emissions on the environment and the absence of a real response by governments. 

You were at COP26 last November. What happened? 

Ceiba: This was my first time at COP.*** Something that struck me was how dependent people are on governments and legislation. Most allow themselves to feel paralysed because policy isn’t in place. They don’t empower themselves…“I’m just gonna do this”. Instead, the thinking goes, “Well when the policy is there, we’ll act. We need to lobby first and then we can act.” 

 But technology is available today. Clients are lining up today for clean shipping. They want it now. They want it yesterday. Why wait for policy? There’s no policy that specifically says you cannot use clean energy.  Why wait for subsidies? Is it because the banks, or the fossil fuel industry, have told you the that you can’t do it? 

I was presenting from a very different perspective than most at COP. Others’ presentations were on government policy, or bodies working towards this. They all had the same story. I responded that we hoped to be like Airbnb or Uber in their early stages, in that we would become so disruptive and so beneficial to the market that governments wouldhave to respond, have to keep up. In other words, we will be the drivers. We will inspire. There is no rule that says you can’t do things differently. 

3rd Space: So, was it the private sector that you saw as waiting, at COP?

Ceiba: Everybody was waiting! Governments are still trapped in a negative feedback loop. They say, “Well the banks won’t finance it.” And their banks say “There’s no policy in place. And the insurance companies say, “Well, when the banks finance it, and when there’s policy in place, we can possibly act”.

3rd Space:  Creating systemic change is complex. On the one hand, as you say, there is the need for autonomous enterprise from below. And at the same time, the climate crisis and its effects are so critical now, that pushing governments to act, to ‘stop the bleeding’, so to speak, seems imperative also?

I too was in Glasgow, at the parallel COP – events sponsored by the People’s Climate Network. The scale of expertise and initiative happening, particularly in the global south, was impressive and very inspiring. Yet, according to science, we only have a small window of time in which to dramatically change direction. How do you reconcile these two streams?  On the one hand autonomous initiatives like Ceiba, which are inherently disruptive in themselves, but take time; and on the other, governments’ role in legislating our transition away from dangerous emissions?

Ceiba: The need for government legislation is of course very important. The power that it holds is something to be reckoned with. But what I continue to feel is a groundswell happening. And, yes, very much in the global south where, like Nordic countries, they see and experience the impacts of global warming directly.

It’s a groundswell of energy. Even people with small budgets are saying “I’m doing this!”. A momentum is building and building and building. But in response, those in positions of power – whether individual billionaires, corporations, or governments — will either join this or they are going to counter it. There’s not going to be a lot of Switzerlands! There’s not going to be a lot of neutral parties with this, because there’s so much at stake. 

3rd Space: Yes. People are going to have choose one way or the other. 

Ceiba: Yes, but I think this could be similar to what happened in the US with Donald Trump.  People I know were so angry about his election. But I thought this is actually a good thing. Why? Because you need to hit rock bottom. And people need to acknowledge this. Only then does everyone say, “Oh…right! This is real! We need to pull together in a new direction”.  Prior to this, we just keep flowing with the status quo.

But once something that big happens, people understand. When they see things clearly, they resist. So, I imagine that a lot of governments are going to get desperate. It’s going to get scrappy because they see they’re losing.

 Obviously, the fossil fuel industry and all the strings behind it – major industries – have a choice. They either pull together with the new … or they’re going to fight it to the end.

You already see this happening. Certain companies are changing, some are not. We’ve been in contact for a few years now with a former Saudi Arabian oil and gas offshore oil company. At this point it has more or less almost completely divested and shifted to renewables. 

3rd Space: Wow! That’s good to hear because, as you know, there’s a lot of verbiage promoting renewables in the fossil fuel industry. Yet when you scratch beneath the surface, you often see the percentage of profit that is actually being invested in renewables, is very small. 

 Ceiba: True. And yet the Green movement used to be seen as tree-huggers and hippies. Now it’s starting to be seen as a business opportunity. I am talking about genuine green businesses. And that’s potentially going to produce a big shift. But things are going to get worse before that shift happens. 

The Inner Principle of Creativity and Innovation 

3rd Space: So, the last thing I would like to cover Dani, is a bit more personal.

Last time I was here, I asked what advice you would give to those starting out with few resources but innovative ideas that could lead to transformative societal change. 

You responded by saying – one needs to be fully committed. You told the story of you and Lynx as co-founders of Ceiba – that it was your total commitment that “freed us of the fear of failure.” It struck me then that this is true of any meaningful endeavour. If you put everything into it – your heart, your mind, your energy and resources – you open yourself up to creative ideas you never imagined. You also open yourself to unforeseen challenges. 

 What is the biggest challenge you faced these last two years, and what did you learn?

Ceiba: I think the biggest challenge and the lesson I learned from it was, when you give 100%, how do you choose to give that?  How do you not burn the wicker at both ends? 

When people see you give everything, they trust you. They feel “Damn, that person is giving everything. I feel aligned with that”. Things can grow very fast.

3rd Space: Yes. It seems to me that when people trust that’s how things can happen, right? If you give 100% of yourself, others around you start to discover that in themselves, and something builds. As with Ceiba, a spark can become a fire?  

Ceiba: Yes, Yes! See how many new projects and spin-offs are going on around Ceiba. However, I don’t offer the infrastructure or support to a new project until someone is willing to be that person. And that’s a unique thing. As soon as you see someone willing to jump in with both feet, who say “it’s me, it’s me”, you’ve found that anchor, that core for the project. Someone with the drive to make it happen. I think it’s a very important principle of creativity or innovation.

But… you need to make sure that you’re pacing yourself properly

I had a severe motorcycle accident last year. It put me in the hospital for two weeks for multiple surgeries. The accident was due to burnout, to exhaustion. I had a lot of time alone in hospital to reflect on my own. I was actually at peace doing nothing.

It’s thrilling to allow yourself to be all-consumed by something. But it’s not sustainable. You have to step back and say,” OK, let’s balance my time and energy here a bit better” in terms of implementing a vision, an idea. But allowing yourself to be completely all consumed when that IDEA emerges, is really neat. You go a lot more deeply, more thoroughly into all aspects. This could be whilst creating an incredible painting, writing a piece for an orchestra, or whatever. It could be creating a new system, or engineering. When you let yourself go fully into something, you come up with a very comprehensive idea. 

*The carbon footprint of a tonne of steel is one to two tonnes of carbon associated with that. If you use green steel, it’s as little as 100 of carbon

**See YouTube, Bangladesh shipbreaking

***Luis Perez represented Ceiba in Bonn, Germany at COP23    

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