Green Peace Corps. Org          Community Organic Farming and Development of Sustainable Fuels and Energy

Shipping Emissions

Troubled Waters and Darkened Skies: Oceanic Shipping Emissions

As industries around the world struggle to cope with the growing energy crisis, oceanic shipping is becoming an increasingly attractive option. The cost of transporting goods from the point of production to the point of consumption represents a growing cost for companies of every kind. In response to shrinking profit margins, industries have begun to shift transportation methods from railways and semi-trucks to ships. These ships are more cost-effective for companies as they allow more goods to be transported at a given time. In 2002 there were 150 million metric tons of goods shipped into U.S ports from foreign countries. Today that number has risen to nearly 250 million metric tons, an increase of over 65%. As newly enacted regulations clamp down on automobile and trucking emissions, this trend will surely continue.

While this conversion may be profitable for various industrial interests, it has come at the expense of the environment. Cargo ships release between 1.2 and 1.6 million tons of airborne particles each year, mostly from the burning of shipping fuel. These include various carbon particles, sulfur and nitrogen oxides which contribute to the greenhouse effect and global climate change. Tankers, cruise liners and cargo ships are estimated to generate almost 30% of the world’s smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions and nearly 10% of SO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The planet currently has 90,000 tankers, container ships and cruise ships traversing its waterways. These ships were responsible for 5-6% of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions in 2006. While this figure might seem insignificant, consider that shipping pollution is equal to the amount generated by 220-330 million cars, double the amount released by all of Canada, and 75-100% more than the aviation industry. Even more disconcerting is the growing trend by industrialized nations to utilize oceanic shipping. The United States alone is expected to double the amount of shipping traffic in and out of its ports by the year 2020. While the American people are increasingly adopting “Green” practices, U.S. industries are moving in the opposite direction in the name of profit, shipping more and more of their goods via oceanic transport.

Unfortunately, the environment is not the only victim. Some estimates have indicated that shipping pollution is responsible for 60,000 deaths worldwide each year. More than 1 in 10 children has been diagnosed with asthma and related lung problems in the world’s biggest port cities. The main culprit is a little known substance called bunker fuel. Oceanic shipping requires the burning of bunker fuel, which has the consistency of mud and contains sulfur levels 3,000 times that of gasoline. Bunker fuel is thought to generate 15-30% of the world’s smog-forming emissions and is 1,000 times dirtier than highway diesel used by trucks and buses.

One might suppose that increased awareness towards air pollution might dissuade ships from this practice, but sadly, that is not the case. In fact, despite the emissions regulations enacted on motor vehicles during the last 35 years, 2008 marks the first year of any emissions controls on the shipping industry. Even more shocking is the federal government’s seeming apathy toward the problem of shipping pollution. Disregarding an international consensus on the dangers of shipping pollution, Congress has failed to approve a European treaty set to take effect in 2009 which will curb shipping emissions. This means that while the rest of the world is acting, albeit slowly, to confront this looming crisis, our own government refuses to do join the effort. As a result, environmental officials have estimated that in 25 years, marine vessels will account for nearly half the total of U.S. smog-forming pollution.

The import of these statistics is clear. While America has begun opening its eyes to the threat of global climate change, our government is engaging in counterproductive practices. Simply put, we are taking one step forward while taking two steps back. While we are targeting the pollution produced by automobiles, little to nothing is being done in regards to oceanic shipping pollution. This is troubling news to say the least, and calls into question the commitment of our own government to truly address worldwide air pollution.

Sources: All statistics provided by the U.S. government’s Guide to Foreign Trade Statistics and the Energy Information Administration.



Written by: Jonathan Zaun

Initiated & Edited by Thomas Thirion

On Behalf Of: Green Peace Corps

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