Setting sail to work

Janina Marie Laurent started out in her new job with GIZ on the Marshall Islands right in the middle of the pandemic. She reached her new workplace by unusual means.

In the heat of the coronavirus pandemic, Janina Marie Laurent, originally from Hamburg, started a new job –more than 13,000 kilometres away from her home city as the crow flies. To get to her workplace on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, she boarded a cargo sailing ship – in a way, a tool of the trade: Laurent advises the Government of the Marshall Islands on low-emission shipping for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH . 

For a whole 18 days, Janina Marie Laurent saw nothing other than the blue of the Pacific. Sometimes with waves, sometimes none. Sometimes with plenty of wind in the sails, sometimes in dead calm. The 32-year-old headed west from Hawaii on the sailing vessel SV Kwai, setting course for her new place of work – after a complex planning process and multiple coronavirus tests. Her background is in political science and geography, which she studied at university, and she has been working for GIZ since July 2020. 

The project Laurent works on is advising the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) on developing solutions for low-emission shipping, on behalf of the German Federal Environment Ministry (BMU). An island nation whose territory is 99.9 per cent ocean, RMI is considered a pioneer in climate change mitigation when it comes to maritime travel: it was the first country to commit itself under the Paris Agreement on climate change to reduce carbon emissions from its national shipping activities by 40 per cent by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, and even to cut them to zero by 2050. ‘The key factor is reducing the emissions from shipping,’ says Laurent, explaining the objective of the project she is working for, which GIZ has been implementing since 2017 in collaboration with RMI’s Ministry of Transport and the University of Emden/Leer in Germany. 

Sailing ship was on its way to a trial mission

For the first two months Laurent worked for her new employer while still based in Hamburg, until the opportunity arose – despite COVID-19 – to travel to the country. Flights to the Marshall Islands have been suspended since the start of the pandemic. So she travelled on a sailing ship, which was to be deployed as a ferry and cargo ship between the 33 atolls on a four-month trial. The ship was chartered for the project, and set sail with an international crew from Honolulu, after a time in port there. There was just one passenger on board: Janina Marie Laurent. During the crossing, which lasted almost three weeks, she learned a great deal about navigation and technology, but she also became even more aware of the importance of taking action on climate change, and that her work can help these projects make progress. 

‘After arriving in the Marshall Islands, SV Kwai was put into service between the islands for four months on a trial basis. Depending on wind conditions it uses up to 80 per cent less fuel than conventional ships, which is a crucial contribution to cutting the emissions generated by maritime transport,’ Laurent explains. The trial showed that even apparently small-scale action can produce big results – and it convinced the RMI Government. It subsequently bought the vessel, and is now the first country in the world with a sailing cargo ship in its national fleet. In future, SV Kwai will be used to sail between the islands to transport passengers and cargo. As part of the project, plans are being drawn up with Emden/Leer University and a Hamburg shipbuilding engineering firm to build another sailing cargo ship, which will then also shuttle between the Marshall Islands’ atolls, like the Kwai. 

That is just one aspect of the project. ‘For example, GIZ organises workshops where boat builders learn how to make traditional small boats,’ says Laurent. This would mean families could afford to have their own small sailing boats to travel within the atolls, instead of relying on motorised ferries. ‘The long-term effects of the project will be an improvement in the lives of local people – in health, thanks to lower pollutant emissions, and in economic terms thanks to new and increased opportunities to work in low-emission shipping,’ continues Laurent. ‘And other island states will be able to benefit from the experience gained in the Marshall Islands.’

Marshall Islands

The archipelago consists of over 1,000 islands, located roughly half-way between Hawaii and the Philippines. More than 50,000 people live on the islands. The country’s most important economic sector is shipping, and about 99.9 per cent of its territory is ocean. The land lies no more than two metres above sea level, placing it under considerable risk from climate change as a result of rising sea levels, heavy rainfall and severe storms. The island group is greatly dependent on imported goods, with more than 95 per cent of national energy supplies having to be imported.

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