EcoPorts News

20 years EcoPorts - Interview with David Whitehead

24 May 2017

EcoPorts, the main environmental initiative of the European port sector, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. To give you more insight in this initiative, we will publish a series of interviews. This time, we interviewed David Whitehead, who was involved in the EcoPorts initiative from the very beginning,

David Whitehead was a member of the EcoPorts Foundation which led the early development of EcoPorts. His original involvement was as the first Chair of the ESPO Environment Committee which had a primary role in developing both the Eco-information and EcoPorts projects. Under his Chairmanship, the first ESPO Environmental Code of Practice (1993) was agreed, closely followed by a survey to establish the top ten environmental challenges. The results of that original survey continue to be regularly updated.

David Whitehead is a founder member of ESPO and was its Chairman from 2000 to 2004.

He retired as Director of the British Ports Association in September 2016. He was awarded an OBE in the 2011 New Year’s Honours list for services to the UK ports industry.

You were involved in the EcoPorts initiative from the very beginning. Why did you feel it was important to support this initiative?

I had always had a strong personal involvement in environmental policy as it was the area where ESPO believed that it could play a leading role and I was the first Chair of its Environment Committee. Getting ports together to take action in a common cause was a very new phenomenon then. It had never been done before on any subject and ESPO was the perfect vehicle to do this. Also, as environment policy was largely separate from more controversial commercial issues, making progress was an early target for ESPO to demonstrate its added value.

We started by producing a first ESPO Environmental Code of Practice which everyone - and there were less member states then so consensus was sometimes easier - signed up to. This was followed in the mid-1990s by a very successful survey of ESPO member ports, asking them a range of questions, particularly on the main challenges for them. We also tried to relate particular problems to particular types or sizes of port, whether they were aware of and had implemented the Code of Practice, and who had the main responsibility for environmental management. The results led to the setting up of the Eco-information project which eventually led to the setting up of EcoPorts. Eco-information was partly funded by the European Commission, so this set a useful precedent.

At the same time, it mustn't be forgotten that in the background big pieces of legislation were on their way, beginning with the Habitats Directive. This Directive changed everything. It meant that ports had to manage sites and operate at a much more complex level, both in terms of management but also politically. If developments were to be compatible with Natura 2000 sites, ports had to demonstrate publicly their competence and commitment to combining environmental protection with successful port operations. EcoPorts played its part in demonstrating this wide industry commitment, and so this was a major role for EcoPorts and an important part of my support for the initiative.

What were the initial objectives of the project? And which difficulties did you encounter?

The initial objectives were quite simple. These were first and foremost to set up a network of ports who could share information and best practice. Linked to this was a more ‘political’ aim, which was to demonstrate to legislators that the port sector could look after itself, could self-regulate, and that new legislation on top of what we already had would be unnecessary. It was also important to use EcoPorts, especially through the development of the `self diagnosis methodology’ (SDM), as a means through which ports could honestly assess their environmental strengths and weaknesses and develop ways of measuring their progress. Were they getting better or worse? The selection of environmental indicators was an important part of this. So there was a mix of objectives, but it was probably the aspect of working together which was most innovative and led to a much greater awareness of shared challenges.

The main difficulties were largely very practical ones of how to physically get ports together as the scheme relied on its network and on personal interaction. There was always plenty of goodwill, but ports can often be rather solitary organisations, usually they are not part of bigger groups as is often the case in other industries. So finding the right locations to meet, working in different languages where possible, showing that the scheme was for everyone’s benefit were all major considerations.

How did EcoPorts evolve over the last 20 years?

There have been some changes but I think it’s very impressive that the SDM and the PERS certificate are still there and have proved their worth. Both have been updated from time to time, but EcoPorts has catered well for the individual need of each port to assess its environmental condition and, where appropriate, compare its performance with similar ports. I think it has also responded well to new issues such as global warming with its work, combining with PORTOPIA, on identifying indicators. Environmental management has become much more professional over the past 20 years, partly because legislation requires more sophisticated management programmes and, therefore, greater technical expertise. The days of the amateur are probably gone! So the networking aspect has probably diminished a little over the past few years. Also some ports have moved on to ISO accreditation because it is universally recognised, and this has to some extent taken over EcoPorts' role. But overall, EcoPorts continues to be a hugely important fixed point for the industry with its early outputs still very much in use and withstanding the test of time.

Could you tell us which effects EcoPorts has had on environmental management in ports?

I believe that EcoPorts has, at the very least, made ports aware of the standards they need to reach, the questions they need to ask, and that there are other ports out there facing similar issues. Whether or not a particular port has taken part in the scheme, it nevertheless knows that there is a point of reference and a network that they can tap into at any time - help is at hand! This is a major achievement and has been entirely led by the industry itself.

Another aspect which is often overlooked is the benefit of having a completely non-commercial scheme such as EcoPorts. There are plenty of environmental consultants out there, but EcoPorts provides a framework for action based on real port needs and without the need to make a profit. This makes it highly trusted. For some of those ports who have gone for PERS certification, I believe they have made use of a process which if sourced elsewhere would probably have been beyond their resources.

I believe that EcoPorts has, in one way or another, had an influence on the thinking of all ports by providing an industry standard devised by the industry itself and based on finding practical solutions to shared environmental challenges.