(RFI) The news that Brazil would sink the aircraft carrier São Paulo, after months of uncertainty about the end of the ship, generated an international mobilization of environmental organizations and a particular commotion in France, the manufacturer of the 266-meter, 28-ton behemoth. The French are a world reference in the dismantling and recycling of civilian and military vessels – but, at least publicly, they were silent about the sinking of the “jewel” of the Brazilian Navy.
The lack of reaction causes even more strangeness after the scandal of the demise of the Clémenceau, the first French aircraft carrier to wander at sea for years until it was finally deconstructed in 2009. The Clémenceau soap opera at least had the merit of leading Paris to adopt a new protocol for the future: from then on, former National Navy vessels could only be scrapped at shipyards accredited with the European Union (EU), including those sold to other countries.
“Unlike the Royal Navy, the UK, and the German Navy, France, for 15 years, has been destroying its ships, preferably in France itself or in countries very close by. The Royal Navy, for example, doesn’t even think about it: it sends military ships, even large ones, to be scrapped in Turkey,” says Jacky Bonnemains, president of the Robin des Bois environmental organization, which specializes in tracking the end of life of large ships, French or otherwise, around the world. The organization publishes a quarterly report of what happens in the seas and oceans.
Tax for recycling
Also in civilian shipping, the French have taken steps forward in environmental regulations regarding the destruction of ships. In 2019, the government created a specialized body for the “eco-responsible” management of recreational boats up to 24 meters, under the Ministry of Ecological Transition. France is the only country in the world to adopt a tax, ranging from 0.5% to 0.8% of the price of boats sold in the country, to finance the recycling of those that reach the end of their useful life.
“This specific organization implies the extended accountability of producers – something that already exists for other sectors, in other countries. But for boats, the only country that has this is France,” assures Ivana Lazarevic, director of APER.
In four years, seven thousand boats have already been dismantled and recycled, in 30 treatment and operation centers spread around the country. “We are involved in different projects to increase the possible recycling of the components the boats are made of and to be able to value them – not to create revenue, but so that they are valued on the market. We are studying various possibilities, such as separating the resin from the fibers and being able to return the fibers and use them in the production of new boats,” he explains.
Lucas Debievre, responsible for the development of APER, adds that, although the service is free, there are still owners who decide to abandon their boats in ports and on vacant lots, but also on the bottom in the sea.
“It was a common practice and we are trying to change the view on the subject, since now owners have no more excuses, since the service is free. Sinking a boat is quite disastrous for the environment,” he notes. “We take care of small boats, they are not like the huge aircraft carrier Foch, but it is still problematic for the environment to sink a boat with all the fuel, plus the damage caused by the deterioration of metals and plastics in the oceans. This is not a good solution,” Debievre points out.
Authorization from France
In the case of the Foch, renamed the São Paulo when it was sold to Brazil, Jacky Bonnemains points out that the export contract included a clause to impose on Brazil the need for authorization from Paris to dismantle the São Paulo.
The Turkish demolition yard SÖK Denizcilik, which bought the hull of the aircraft carrier, is accredited with the EU and France therefore agreed to the transaction. But under pressure from the environmental risks of the operation, the Turkish government eventually refused to take delivery of the ship, which was forced to return to the Brazilian coast, where it wandered for months.
Even so, the legal-environmental imbroglio that the case turned into in Brazil did not generate reactions from Paris – at least not publicly. “We didn’t listen to the French Navy, we didn’t listen to the Minister of Defense, nor did we listen to President Emmanuel Macron, who was trying to cooperate and find dialogue with Brazil’s new president, Lula,” Bonnemains comments. “France had given its agreement for the first option of dismantling, which proved impossible. But for the option of sinking the ship, we can’t say that France accepted, but we can’t say that it opposed it either,” the environmentalist notes.
Sought by RFI, the French Ministries of Defense and Ecological Transition declined to comment on the matter.
“I think it must be having a huge unease in the National Navy and the Ministry of Defense and that somehow this could lead to more vigilance for when the French government resells used ships to other countries,” Robin des Bois assesses.
Brazil “has no culture” of dismantling and France knew the risks
The expert hopes that the case will lead France to adopt stricter conditions regarding the end of life of the ships, in future contracts. He says that a vessel of this size represents “a chemical plant” for the ocean, with miles of pipes, fittings, and electrical cables full of highly toxic elements such as PCB, asbestos, lead, chromium, arsenic, or mercury, which sooner or later will end up polluting the Brazilian coast – not to mention the millions of animals, plants, and organisms already affected by the sinking of the structure, which now lies at a depth of 5,000 meters.
Bonnemains recalls that Paris “knew it was taking a risk” by handing over the aircraft carrier to a country like Brazil, which, like its Latin American neighbors, “has absolutely no culture” of demolishing decommissioned ships, whether civilian or military.
“We already understood very quickly, and it has been confirmed now, that Brazil not only does not have the culture, it does not have the will, to tell the truth, to build a ship dismantling industry. Between 2018 and 2022, Brazil shipped about 20 oil and mineral tankers to India and Bangladesh,” denounces the environmentalist.
*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI team ***