Pollution from ships kills thousands each year

Unlike road fuel, marine fuel is tax free. [Ron Cogswell/Flickr]

Shipping emissions are an invisible killer that cause lung cancer and heart disease, a new study has found, but researchers say the 60,000 deaths they cause each year could be significantly cut by exhaust filtration devices. 

The University of Rostock and the German environmental research centre Helmholzzentrum Munich have established a firm link between shipping exhaust emissions and serious diseases, that cost European health services €58 billion annually.

Conventional ship engines that burn heavy fuel oil or diesel fuel emit high concentrations of harmful substances including heavy metals, hydrocarbons and sulphur, as well as carcinogenic particulate matter (PM).

People in coastal areas are particularly at risk, researchers said. Up to half of PM-related air pollution in coastal areas, rivers and ports comes from ship emissions, according to the study.

Lief Miller, the CEO of conservation NGO NABU, said, “The results are frightening and confirm our worst fears. Emissions from ships cause serious lung and heart diseases.”

Fine particle emissions have been linked to increased health risks for decades. Although substantial efforts have been made to reduce the sulphur and diesel soot emissions from cars and lorries, no comparable efforts have been made for the shipping sector.

>> Read: Air pollution will kill thousands in Europe, EEA warns

The NGO Transport & Environment said, “Marine fuel is 2,700 times dirtier than road diesel and €35 billion of fuel tax is paid yearly in Europe for road transport, while shipping uses tax-free fuel.”

Given that shipping accounts for over one fifth of global fuel consumption, the fact that its emissions are not more strictly regulated is cause for concern.

Improving air quality through exhaust filtration

For the researchers, legislation enforcing particle filtration and PM limits in shipping is the “next logical target for improving air quality worldwide, particularly in coastal regions and harbour cities”.

Dietmar Oeliger, NABU’s transport expert, said, “We really underline the recommendation of the scientists to urgently switch to low sulphur fuels together with effective emission abatement techniques.”

The most effective method of cleaning up emissions from shipping is to combine PM filters with low-sulphur fuels, a measure that has long been in place on the roads.

Other options include converting ships’ engines to run on gas or retrofitting them with exhaust gas cleaning systems known as “scrubbers”.

Controlling sulphur emissions

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has capped the sulphur content of shipping fuel at 3.5%. By 2020, the IMO will limit sulphur content in ship’s fuel to 0.5% worldwide.

In many of Europe’s coastal waters the limit is 1%, and as of January 2015, the limit in the Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs) of the North and the Baltic Seas is just 0.1%.

According to Transport & Environment, the health benefits from the implementation of the new stricter SECAs are projected to be worth up to €23 billion.

But these limits are not strictly enforced, and the options available for reducing sulphur and PM emissions remain too expensive for the majority of ship operators.

>> Read: Sulphur Directive pushes shipping into stormy waters

As well as severe health risks to humans, sulphur causes acid rain and leads to a host of environmental problems including soil and water quality degradation and damage to biodiversity.

“We need meaningful measures to incentivise the uptake of cleaner marine fuels as a stepping stone towards cleaning up the sector,” said Sotiris Raptis, clean shipping officer at Transport & Environment.

Sulphur and CO2 emissions from sea transport are rising, while emissions from road transport are falling. Emissions from the international maritime transport sector today account for 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 4% of EU GHG emissions.

Society does not put pressure on the maritime transport industry to reduce its emissions, as commercial ships, unlike lorries, are usually far from the public eye.

In Europe, the sector has slipped through the net of CO2 emissions regulation. Its first CO2 targets will not come into force until 2018. Environmental NGOs believe the inclusion of the maritime transport industry in the carbon quota system will help raise the price of CO2 and lower emissions.

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