If you have ever driven behind a large diesel truck you have experienced the oily smell and the thick black smoke that leaves the air a brownish color. It's easy to see the cumulative effect of this exhaust on a busy highway. But there's something much worse out there -- cargo ships!
Almost everything bought in America is made in Asia. This requires a constant procession of cargo ships crossing the oceans of the world. Some of these cargo ships are huge -- a quarter mile long -- and they have engines in them as big as a house [below].
As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world's largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world's cars put together!
These super-vessels use as much fuel as small power stations, but unlike power stations, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel -- the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.
There are now an estimated 100,000 ships on the seas, and the fleet is growing fast as goods are ferried in vast quantities from Asian industrial powerhouses to consumers in Europe and North America. The recession has barely dented the trade. Super-ships from the Far East, such as the Emma Maersk and her seven sisters Evelyn, Eugen, Estelle, Ebba, Eleonora, Elly and Edith Maersk can carry up to 14,000 full-size containers on their regular routes from China to Europe and America.
Emma -- dubbed SS Santa by the media -- brought Christmas presents to Europe in October and is now en route from Algeciras in Spain to Yantian in southern China, carrying containers full of our waste paper, plastic and electronics for recycling. It burns marine heavy fuel, or 'bunker fuel', which leaves behind a trail of potentially lethal chemicals like sulphur and smoke that has been linked to lung problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease.
James Corbett, of the University of Delaware, is an authority on ship emissions. He calculates a worldwide death toll of about 64,000 a year, of which 27,000 are in Europe. Britain is one of the worst-hit countries, with about 2,000 deaths from funnel fumes. Corbett predicts the global figure will only continue to rise to more than 87,000 deaths a year in a few years.
Part of the blame for this international scandal lies close to home. The International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that polices the world's shipping has rebuffed calls to clean up ship pollution for decades. As a result, while it has long since been illegal to belch black, sulphur-laden smoke from power-station chimneys or truck exhausts, shipping has kept its licence to pollute.
For 31 years, the IMO has operated a policy agreed by the 169 governments that make up the organisation which allows most ships to burn bunker fuel. It's just another negative effect from globalization.
Christian Eyde Moller, boss of the DK shipping company in Rotterdam, recently described this as "just waste oil, basically what is left over after all the cleaner fuels have been extracted from crude oil. It's tar, the same as asphalt. It's the cheapest and dirtiest fuel in the world."
Bunker fuel is also thick with deadly sulphur. 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 automobile fuel. The sulphur comes out of the ship's exhaust as tiny particles, and it is these that get deep inside the 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, that means 16 super-ships can emit as much sulphur as the world fleet of cars!
A year ago, the IMO belatedly decided to clean up its act. It said shipping fuel should not contain more than 3.5 per cent sulphur by 2012 and eventually must come down to 0.5 per cent. This lower figure could cut the deaths in half, says Corbett.
It should not be hard to do. There is no reason ship engines cannot run on clean fuel, like cars. But, away from a handful of low-sulphur zones, including the English Channel and North Sea, the IMO gave shipping lines a staggering 12 years to make the switch. And, even then, it will depend on a final "feasibility review" (think co$t) in 2018.
In the meantime, according to Corbett’s figures, nearly one million more people will die.
Smoke and sulphur are not the only threats from ships' exhaust. 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!
Of course, shipping companies are keeping their heads down. A meeting of the IMO in July threw out proposals from the British Chamber of Shipping, among others, to set up a carbon-trading scheme to encourage emissions reductions. Amazingly, the shipping companies pleaded poverty. Two-thirds of the world's ships are registered in developing countries such as Panama. But these are just flags of convenience, to evade tougher rules on safety and pay for sailors.
At the IMO, governments successfully argued that ships from developing countries should not have to cut carbon emissions. IMO secretary-general Efthimios Mitropoulos insisted: "We are heavily and consistently engaged in the fight to protect and preserve our environment." Yet without limits, carbon emissions from shipping could triple by 2050.
The failure brought calls for the IMO to be stripped of its powers to control the world's ships. Colin Whybrow, of Greenwave, a British charity set up to campaign for cleaner shipping, says: "The IMO is drinking in the last-chance saloon."
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.
However you look at it, the super-ships are rogues on the high seas, operating under pollution standards long since banished on land; warming the planet and killing its inhabitants. But what can we do?
* Robert Pedersen, of Maersk, said:
"The sulphur content varies according to where you get your fuel. Our average sulphur content is, I believe, 2.5 per cent. It's rather rare you get anything close to 4.5 per cent. The sulphur issue is one for the whole industry... There would be a huge cost implication to switch to cleaner fuel."
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