Changing Perceptions

December 2021

Teesport:  A cynic’s field trip  

Before we start, there’s something you should know.    

I am a cynic.  Always have been, probably always will.

Suspicion, disbelief and scepticism are my friends.      

That’s not to say I’m some befuddled conspiracy theorist. I don’t disappear down online rabbit holes or declare Bill Gates is a Bond villain intent on world domination.   

It just means I’m an old school, dyed-in-the-wool naysayer.   

See a half-price sale, I think ‘what’s the catch.’  Get a compliment, a voice in my head whispers, ‘what are they really after?’ Read the headline ‘Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund buys Newcastle United’, that same voice screams ‘Sportswash!’

I have cynicism running through my veins and around my brain like a sweaty marathon runner has endorphins.  

It’s either why I spent 20 years in news media or because of it.  

Teesport: ‘model for the future’?

So safe to say cynicism was along for the ride when I first drove into Teesport in the north east of England.   

Standing before me was a ‘model for the future’, or so the background notes trumpeted.  

A living, breathing example of how ports can be at the vanguard of a green revolution, radically transform our supply chains and bring jobs to a deprived part of the UK.       

At first glance, it appeared Teesport didn’t get the memo.  

The vast expanse of grey concrete, cranes, quays, cavernous warehouses and industrial bric-a-brac conveys more than a whiff of the past.   

A huge container ship nestled at its berth; freight piled high on the quay. A crane operator high above us wearing a hard hat. These are surely images to eulogise a bygone age, not harbingers of a bright greener future I think.       

I stifle a suspicious sigh as chief executive Frans Calje silently glides into view.  His choice of transport, a sleek black Tesla, doing nothing to quell my doubts.  ‘Green window dressing,’ I muse.   

Dutch, tall, with an easy smile and firm handshake, Calje commands attention.  

He talks quickly.  He talks impatiently.   Plans, observations, ideas and asides stream from his lips.  

“If you don’t become efficient when it comes to your carbon footprint .. you become a dinosaur.” 

“The public is voting with their feet.”  

“We want to be one of Britain’s largest ports by the end of this decade but by doing so, we also want to be the most sustainable.”  

A green revolution in progress

He certainly talks a good game; making an economic case for green revolution and compelling me to see the port through his eyes.        

The ship at berth I first dismissed as a relic, is in fact the future.  A sign on its stern saying it’s powered by hydrogen.  

That crane ferrying those containers runs on electric.  

The crane operator, one of the local employees being skilled for the future economy.   

And the sound of train rumbling out of the port; the sound of efficiency coming to our supply chains and freight being taken off our roads.    

Later I’m given the meat to Calje’s words.  Teesport has invested over £120 million over the past decade in greener, smarter and more efficient infrastructure.    

It’s investment which acknowledges our massive reliance on marine freight transport will continue but says it can and should be done better.        

While cynicism is a useful trait for a journalist, bold ambition and the art of the possible are Calje’s currency.   

“Getting a port to net zero in the foreseeable future is actually not that difficult. I’m in a hurry.”  

Interview over, Calje glides away in his Tesla and I head home in my diesel Volvo.  

A twenty-minute conversation won’t undo a lifetime of scepticism, but I do notice the cynical voice in my head is temporarily lost for words.  

Change in the boardroom

And it occurs to me for a green energy revolution to happen, first we need a revolution in the boardroom.  

We need industry leaders who make a compelling economic case for green innovation. 

Who see their companies and their industrial sectors as catalysts for positive change.   

Who are motivated to do the ‘right thing’ when it comes to climate change but smart enough to find a way to do it profitably.   

And who are bold enough to silence their cynic’s voice and embrace a positive vision of the future.   Maybe that’s people like Calje.  

As for me, my cynicism will find its voice again. 

It’ll probably bang on about change being impossible while the profit motive remains the ‘be all and end all.’   Or that unless the government does more we’re never going to really change.   

But if Teesport proves it makes economic sense to push forward a green energy agenda, my cynicism might need something else to concern itself.     

Nick Salter, Executive Producer

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