New Priorities

Classification societies guide ships to a greener tomorrow.

Illustration courtesy LR

Published Jul 29, 2022 9:59 PM by Mia Bennett

(Article originally published in May/June 2022 edition.)

In the 3rd century BC, Rhodian seafarers sailing the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean established the foundations of maritime law. Regulating everything from bills of lading to standards of passenger behavior, their guidelines were formalized in the 7th century AD under the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople’s role is fitting, for today maritime governance involves a truly byzantine world including national governments, international organizations and classification societies.

Class societies occupy an unusual role in ensuring safety at sea. They’re both rule-makers and consultants, helping shipowners determine how to adhere to the standards they set – from construction to operation.

Most of the world’s leading societies were established in the nineteenth century when the global shipping industry was quite literally picking up steam. Now, from Korea to Norway, they’re looking to the future as they help shipowners navigate a geopolitically and economically fraught world under pressure to decarbonize and digitalize. At the same time, class societies must respond to seafarer welfare and environmental issues like ocean noise and marine mammal health. Although they face a heavy agenda, societies worldwide are rising to the task.

Carbon Economics

The U.S. has a leading society with Houston-based American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), established in 1862. John McDonald, ABS Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, explains, “ABS has advanced the cause of safety at sea for 160 years, leading the maritime industry with an innovation-based approach and a mindset that focuses on protecting people, property and the environment.”

ABS offers industry-leading advice on regulatory compliance and fleet performance with an eye to long-term planning for alternative fuels in what McDonald calls “a new era of carbon economics.” The company has set up a network of global sustainability centers headquartered in Athens, Greece with branches in Houston, Singapore, Shanghai and Copenhagen, enabling the company to scale up support at key maritime locations.

ABS is also combining decarbonization and digitalization efforts through its MyDigitalFleet platform, which leverages ship-generated data to improve vessel performance and efficiency and optimize voyages. McDonald explains, “MyDigitalFleet includes tools for access by multiple stakeholders so that owners can work collaboratively with their vendors and charterers, increasing transparency and improving outcomes.”

Such tools will help guide shipowners as they modernize their fleets and navigate the energy transition while still pursuing, as McDonald stresses, “the goal of maintaining safety for ships, crews, and the environment.”

Above and Beyond

On the other side of the Pacific, Japan’s ClassNK, established in 1899, firmly believes in going above and beyond. Katsuya Naito, General Manager, Zero Emissions Transition Center at ClassNK, observes, “Meeting minimum requirements has been just a prerequisite, and there’s a growing trend to pursue minimizing safety and environmental risks and ensuring sustainability in maritime transportation beyond mandatory requirements.”

Among ClassNK’s cutting-edge services are new certification frameworks encouraging decarbonization and innovation. Under its Zero Emission Transition Support Services portfolio, ClassNK in April released its ClassNK ZETA (Zero Emission Transition Accelerator) tool, which helps shipowners accurately track CO2 emissions and confirm and simulate carbon intensity indicator ratings.

Another recently developed tool, ClassNK’s Innovation Endorsement, provides third-party evaluation and non-mandatory certification services for innovations in shipping. Last year, the scope of class notations under this framework expanded to include Advanced Safety (a-SAFE), Advanced Environmental Awareness (a-EA) and Excellent Living and Working environment (ELW). “As a speed-focused service, Innovation Endorsement has been devised to help solutions overcome the challenges that often face pioneers,” Naito explains.

ClassNK is also closely pursuing digitalization. By the end of April, 77 ships had been certified with its Digital Smart Ship notation in recognition of employing advanced digital solutions like energy efficiency, machinery monitoring, and data processing and transmission to shore.

When it comes to digitalization, Korean Register (KR) seeks to be the world’s leading digital classification society. Hyung-chul Lee, Chairman & CEO, recounts, “As early as 2017, KR’s surveyors were applying new remote inspection technologies such as drones and crawlers or applying virtual reality.”

In 2020, the company completed its first hull survey of a bulk carrier using a drone and a crawler, which can climb up and down walls. It’s also launched a paperless, 3D model-based system for approving ship designs. Embracing the world of big data, KR is working with shipowners and data analysis companies to install sensors onboard newbuilds and existing vessels to encourage what is called “condition-based maintenance.” In support of this effort, KR recently launched its Integrated Survey Center, a digital platform developed in-house to interactively exchange data between shipping companies and KR to monitor ships worldwide and provide systematic, integrated survey services.

Lee sees digitalization and decarbonization becoming increasingly intertwined: “We envisage a transformation from ‘traditional hull and machinery-oriented ships’ to ‘future system-oriented ships.’ The advent of decarbonized and digital ships based on these systems will require the transformation of existing ship safety systems, and classification societies’ roles and assignments ensuring the safety of ships will become bigger and more complex.”


The world’s oldest classification society, Lloyd’s Register (LR), has seen maritime powers come and go over its nearly three centuries of existence. Through it all, Mark Daley, Marine & Offshore Director, explains, “Our technical expertise has kept the ocean economy moving safely, efficiently, and sustainably for over 260 years.”

Daley reflects on the rapid pace of change of the ocean economy and the urgency of digitalizing and decarbonizing: “We recognize that there has never been a more pressing need for specialist maritime advisers to guide and support clients through the fundamental changes they face in the decade ahead, helping to define the route to compliance, operational efficiency, sustainability and competitive agility.”

Apart from its long-established work in classification, compliance, construction and operation, LR has developed a range of new maritime performance services. “From data insights, advisory, fleet optimization and fleet management to a portfolio of solutions for the maritime energy transition, we can help and support our clients’ decisions wherever they sit in the maritime supply chain and enable them to perform at their best,” he says.

The company’s Maritime Decarbonisation Hub is a leading research center for future maritime fuels and an incubator for industry-wide collaboration. Exemplifying the partnerships it supports, LR, Samsung Heavy Industries and MISC (via its subsidiary AET) signed a memorandum of understanding in April for the development and construction of two very large crude carriers that will be ammonia-propelled with the first delivery scheduled for late 2025.

Over its nearly 200-year existence, Bureau Veritas (BV), a French classification society founded in Belgium in 1828, has transformed into an 80,000-strong company specializing in testing, inspection and certification with over 11,500 ships classed under its auspices.

Ulrik Dan Frørup, Chief Commercial Director of BV Marine & Offshore, says that his division is one of many at BV with others including agriculture, industry, consumer products, buildings and infrastructure. “This gives us the capacity to draw on expertise from across different industrial and economic sectors that span the full length of global supply chains,” he explains, “enabling us to transfer knowledge and create meaningful partnerships within and outside shipping.”

One area BV Marine & Offshore is advancing is green technologies and sustainability with research into existing energy options like biofuels and wind power and future fuels such as ammonia and hydrogen. Frørup underscores BV’s interest in “de-risking ambitious new projects” by supporting, for example, pathbreaking collaboration in wind propulsion solutions and fuel cells as well as a concept combining LNG conversion and vessel jumboization.

“We’re enormously proud to be leading in segments where innovation is the norm,” he says. “This expertise across all types of ships, especially very specialized ones, is another key differentiator for BV, spanning Arctic-capable LNG carriers and electric ferries, hybrid-powered crew transfer vessels and the latest standards and requirements in the tug sector.”

Across the North Sea, Norway’s DNV remains driven by its 158-year-old purpose to safeguard life, property and the environment while continuously advancing into new sectors. “DNV brings to customers a broad range of expertise spanning six business areas including Maritime, Energy Systems, Digital Solutions, Business Assurance, Supply Chain and Product Assurance as well as the Accelerator business area,” states Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO of DNV Maritime, “focusing on services related to inspection, cybersecurity and digital health.”

Among its newest products is the Veracity cloud platform, which enables customers to verify, validate and control their data to support confident decision-making. Veracity has been used to accurately predict vessel emissions and improve sustainable ship financing to helping banks and financial institutions comply with the Poseidon Principles, a global framework for assessing whether ship finance portfolios align with the IMO’s greenhouse gas targets.

Moving from the cloud to below the seas, DNV is addressing growing levels of ship noise with its SILENT class notations, a first-of-its-kind initiative launched in 2010. A range of survey vessels and sophisticated hydro-acoustic equipment also enables DNV to measure underwater noise levels to help make the oceans calmer for marine life.

Blue Planet

Around the world, class societies have a common goal: to keep people, ships and the sea safe, now and for posterity. Capturing this sentiment, BV’s Frørup affirms, “The sea has now become a stakeholder in its own right. Now it’s our role not just to protect life at sea, ships and assets or help prevent pollution, but to also more actively preserve and protect our blue planet for future generations and deliver a better maritime world.”

Whether it comes to decarbonizing the atmosphere, quieting the riotous seas or ensuring that the seafarers operating the world’s 90,000 commercial vessels are sain et sauf, class societies have their work cut out for them. They’ll also need to ensure they can attract talent, which Frørup insists is the heart of shipping’s transition to sustainability: “It’s people, and their passion and dedication, who will drive progress.”

People must also work together, especially in these uncertain times. “Collaboration is vital for all participants to prosper,” says LR’s Daley, “whether between charterers and shipowners, class and shipowners and shipyards, or finance, shipowners and original equipment manufacturers.”

Ultimately, if classification societies are as successful as their Rhodian predecessors over two millennia ago, their standards should persist for the next millennium. As with all things, time will tell.

Frequent contributor Mia Bennett teaches at the University of Washington.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.