"We will need space and we will have to explain that to citizens and policy makers."

Isabelle Ryckbost, Secretary General of the European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO), talks about the ESPO-Conference in Bremen and the challenges that European ports are facing.

Isabelle Ryckbost is Secretary General of the European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO). Before taking up this function, Isabelle has been Director of the European Federation of Inland Ports (EFIP) and Senior Advisor of ESPO for four years. She studied Law and European Law. She worked in the European Commission and in an EU Public Affairs consultancy. In 1994 she started working in the European Parliament, where she worked as a political assistant.

Mrs Ryckbost, the ESPO Conference is only a few days away. It is already the 10th edition, that you personally have organised. What are you looking forward to especially?

That is hard to pinpoint. For me the ESPO Conference is the highlight of the year. Of course the aim of the conference is to gain intelligence and reflect on the big challenges ports are facing. But, ports business is people business. It is wonderful to see, that all these ports are coming together during those two days and are talking with each other and laughing, gaining knowledge, sharing knowledge. During corona we could not have the conference, so last year was a big party. And I am convinced, that this year will be a very nice edition as well. And we always have the slogan ESPO Conferences are more than a conference. The End of the day is not ending with the last speaker. Networking afterwards is equally important

There is also an economic outlook on what challenges ports will have to face.

Right. And for the first time this year we will also have an outlook on how ports will develop as regards energy. And we also have an American expert on international trade policy and the US Inflation reduction Act. We are always looking forward to Speakers who are outspoken and not only polite.

The last year has been a turbulent one, economically and politically. How did the European Ports manage to cope with the crises around the globe?

Ports are hubs of industry in many cases, they are important for all the economic activities at the sea, connecting people and between islands and main lands, and ports are at its origins also safe shelters for ships in difficulty. They are an important element in the security aspects of geopolitical context for the military movement and military movement of troops, material and in the emergency supply chains. Last but not least they play a critical role in the supply of the energy for Europe’s economy and society.

So if you look at all these roles and we consider Covid, climate challenges and the Russian invasion in Ukraine, if we look at all the barriers for globalisation, you see the challenges and we as ports are in the middle of these. Though, ports have shown to be very resilient. Bremen is a good example.

Where do ports stand on the way to energy transition towards renewables?

Ports can play an important role by facilitating the energy transition. This is a game changer. Ports can become hubs of renewable energy. In for instance bringing wind energy on land, import and export of hydrogen, depending on the geographical situation as well storage and conversion. But these opportunities also require a new way of thinking for the ports. Its new partners, stakeholders, probably new skills you need in the port, and more importantly, this will all require a lot of space. Because all the new energies require more space than fossile energies.

This comes on top of the traditional roles of ports.

Correct. These are challenges that politicians and citizens have to understand. We have very ambitious goals in Europe, to get to net zero. But of course if we want that, then we need a policy framework that helps us to deliver.

We will need space and we will have to explain to citizens and policy makers, that the green transition will come with additional infrastructure. The green transition will not mean planting more trees. This will also be a part of it, but you will also need the wind energy on land to convert and to store energy and you will need space for that and infrastructure. Ports will need the financial support, because in the end, a lot of the investments will come without a direct return on investment. And when we want to boost renewable energy but every renewable energy project is blocked, because people do not like to see windmills or cables or pipelines, that connect the energies to the grid, we have a problem.

So it remains challenging.

Ports in Europe are mission driven. They have a hybrid character. They are both commercial and public, and because of the public side, it is not only money that is the main driver, it is also the mission to be sustainable. The european ports have realised that the challenges nowadays are so big, that we need new ways of thinking and cooperation.

Mrs Ryckbost, thank you for the interview.

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