The majority of us are aware of the negative environmental impacts that are associated with the vehicles we drive. The government and environmentalists alike tell us to ride our bikes, to use public transportation, to buy hybrid vehicles and don’t you dare idle! But is it us and our vehicles that are really the primary offenders? What about transportation on the much larger scale? I’m talking about transportation on the seas.
According to Fred Pearce – environmental consultant to New Scientist and author of Confessions Of An Eco Sinner – just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.
The International Maritime Organisation is the UN body that polices the world’s shipping. For decades, the IMO has rebuffed calls to clean up ship pollution. As a result, while it has long since been illegal to belch black, sulphur-laden smoke from power-station chimneys or lorry exhausts, shipping has kept its licence to pollute.
There are an estimated 100,000 ships on the sea, and this number is growing. Not only do these ships use an enormous amount of fuel, they use an enormous amount of marine heavy fuel or ‘bunker fuel’. This type of fuel comes from the thick residue left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The use of this type of fuel on land is illegal. “It’s tar, the same as asphalt. It’s the cheapest and dirtiest fuel in the world,” says Christian Eyde Moller, boss of the DK shipping company inRotterdam.
When burned, it leaves behind a trail of potentially lethal chemicals: sulphur and smoke that have been linked to breathing problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease. IMO rules allow ships to burn fuel containing up to 4.5 per cent sulphur. That is 4,500 times more than is allowed in car fuel in the European Union. The sulphur comes out of ship funnels as tiny particles, and it is these that get deep into lungs. Thanks to the IMO’s rules, the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulphur in a year – the same as 50 million typical cars, each emitting an average of 100 grams of sulphur a year. With an estimated 800million cars driving around the planet, this means 16 super-ships can emit as much sulphur as the world fleet of cars.
Smoke and sulphur are not the only threats from ships’ funnels. Every year they are also belching out almost one billion tons of carbon dioxide. Ships are as big a contributor to global warming as aircraft – but have had much less attention from environmentalists. Both international shipping and aviation are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol rules on cutting carbon emissions.
The British Chamber of Shipping, as well as others, has proposed that the IMO set up a carbon-trading scheme to encourage emissions reductions. However, the IMO’s response was that this wasn’t feasible due to poverty. Two-thirds of the world’s ships are registered in developing countries such asPanama. These are just flags of convenience, to evade tougher rules on safety and pay for sailors. Without limits, carbon emissions from shipping could triple by 2050.
So what is the solution? Using cleaner fuel sources to start. “Burning low-sulphur fuel won’t cut carbon emissions from ships. But there are other ways. More efficient engines could reduce emissions by 30 per cent,” according to British marine consultant Robin Meech. “Cutting speed could reduce emissions by as much again. And there are even wackier ways, such as putting up giant kites to harness the wind as in the days of sailing ships.”