Credit: Timothée Andonian / Iméra
Christiaan De Beukelaer
At a glance
Shipping the Future:
Rethinking Maritime Cargo Transport in Line with the Paris Agreement
Summary of the research project
In late February 2020, Christiaan De Beukelaer embarked on an ethnographic research project aboard the Avontuur, a hundred-year-old sailing ship, to understand how ships transporting cargo under sail can operate sustainably. These sail cargo vessels cater to niche markets of environmentally-conscious consumers who prefer “sailed” goods over those transported by the heavily polluting maritime industry. Christiaan’s project, conducted at Iméra, delves into the potential of wind propulsion technologies and sail cargo companies to reshape the shipping industry towards sustainability.
Sail Cargo and the Prefiguration of Sustainable Shipping
The shipping industry is a major polluter, contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. However, small sailing cargo vessels, like the Avontuur, offer a glimmer of hope for sustainable shipping. Christiaan’s journey on the Avontuur allowed him to explore the functioning of these prefigurative niche companies and their vision of decarbonizing the shipping industry through wind propulsion. While at sea, he documented the challenges and opportunities they face in this pursuit.
The Ethnographic Exploration:
As an ethnographic researcher, Christiaan immersed himself in the sail cargo movement to understand its diverse community, including company founders, shareholders, professional crew, cargo owners, and volunteers. He conducted interviews and engaged with various stakeholders to comprehend their motivations, visions, and objectives. By observing their action-based advocacy for climate change intervention, he revealed how sail cargo initiatives contribute to prefigurative climate politics.
Examining the Visions:
Christiaan’s research critically analyzes the sail cargo movement’s visions and missions. He seeks to understand how these companies aim to decarbonize shipping, not just by changing propulsion mechanisms, but by addressing excessive consumption and demand for shipping. This examination aims to shed light on the complexities and contradictions of the movement and its potential role in the shipping industry’s decarbonization.
Anthropology of Policy and the Quest for Climate Justice
The Challenge of Shipping Emissions:
The maritime transport industry’s enormous greenhouse gas emissions pose a significant challenge to global climate goals. Christiaan’s research adopts an “anthropology of policy” approach, focusing on shipping emissions regulations and the tensions between the pragmatic regulatory commitments at the IMO and the high ambition goals of the sail cargo community.
Competing Priorities in the High Ambition Coalition:
Christiaan investigates the approaches of two IMO member states, Denmark and the Marshall Islands, in negotiating emissions regulations. He explores how these states balance their commitment to ambitious climate action with domestic interests in the shipping industry. By analyzing official documents and conducting expert interviews, Christiaan aims to build a conceptual framework for public policy to govern the high seas in the context of decarbonization.
Just and Equitable Transition:
One of the key challenges in shipping decarbonization is ensuring a just and equitable transition. Christiaan probes the concept of “just and equitable transition” within IMO negotiations, which can be interpreted differently by various actors. He explores whether a “hard” or “soft” approach is more feasible in reducing emissions and addressing the emissions gap between IMO targets and projections. Christiaan’s work also examines the wider implications of his findings for other transnational activities.
Christiaan De Beukelaer took up sailing to get away from his desk on weekends. This worked out well, until he developed an interest in how to decarbonise the shipping industry.
Trained as a Musicologist at the University of Amsterdam, Christiaan further studied both Cultural Studies and Development Studies at the University of Leuven. He subsequently lived in Burkina Faso and Ghana to study how governments and international organisations mobilised music industries as a driver of “development,” as part of his doctoral studies at the University of Leeds. This award-winning research took him to some of the best (and some of the worst) gigs he’s ever been to.
Throughout his career as an anthropologist of policy, Christiaan has tried to understand how power and ideology influence governance and regulation. After working on cultural policy for a decade, he changed tack to help address the climate crisis and rethink the future of maritime transport by focusing on climate policy instead. The constant throughout his research is an attempt to understand how the United Nations can be simultaneously dysfunctional and vital to a flourishing environment and human dignity in the face of an existential planetary climate crisis. Great ideas alone are, after all, rarely enough to change the world.
Christiaan grew up in Ghent, where he spent much of his teens living on a barge on the river Scheldt. He works at the University of Melbourne and has held visiting positions at the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham and at the universities of Copenhagen, Jyväskylä, Cape Town, Hildesheim, and Coimbra. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.