Cargo Ships Pollution Impact on Environment and Human Health

Cargo Ships Pollution Impact on Environment and Human Health

The great pollution from cargo ships ruins the marine environment and causes death; more attention is now paid to the damage caused by the transport of goods, by searching for alternative ways to make travel more sustainable.

In recent years buying a product online and receiving it within a week has become the norm for most of us, even if the product is shipped from far away. However, we rarely wonder how packages get to our homes. In this article, we are going to discuss concerns with the pollution produced by large cargo ships carrying goods all around the world.

Sea freight is the most widely used method for shipping goods, representing 80 percent of global trades and with a fleet of 90 thousand cargo ships. Many carbon dioxide emissions are produced from these enormous displacements heavily impacting the health of seas, leading to oceanic acidification. In other words, the increase of carbon dioxide puts marine ecosystems at risk, reducing the amount of fish available on the market.

The shipping industry represents up to 3 percent of global emissions and 10 percent of transport emissions; in fact, the demand for shipping is rising and the forecast will be from 50 percent to 250 percent more if nothing improves by 2050, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Furthermore, this research doesn’t even include environmental damage caused by possible fuel leaks, namely cargo lost at sea during transport and stranding.

The largest ships create the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars, increasing the risk of diseases like cancer and asthma. These cargo ships are powered by bunker fuel, which is diesel of such low quality that it is almost considered waste to be discarded compared to refined oil. These ships can reach a gross weight of 220,000 tons and therefore also require large engines and a lot of horsepower to be able to move. Moreover, since consumption is very high, ships are powered by bunker fuel, which is very economical compared to other types of fuel but is also very polluting. In fact, a study published on Nature Communications estimates that air pollution is responsible for 250 thousand deaths a year and that global maritime shipping causes up to 6.4 million cases of childhood asthma annually.

At the beginning of June there was an important virtual meeting between the International Maritime Organization and representatives of more than 100 countries to discuss future environmental ambitions; however, the commitment to a cleaner marine transport sector has met with resistance from shipbuilders, oil companies and some states that make the transport of goods in cargo ships their main business. great example of this is Saudi Arabia, which, in addition to being the largest oil exporter in the world, is also the financier for the IMO’s Green Ships Initiative.

Regulators and investors from around the world are pressuring shipping groups to step up their emissions reduction ambitions. The International Maritime Organization has introduced targets to halve Green House Gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, but experts believe that target is too far off to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. Even if more aggressive targets were set, by reducing the time to act and increasing the research for sustainable fuels or movement systems, it could still take years for the bureaucracy to move forward and in the meantime ship emissions would continue to rise.

A short-term but immediate solution could be reducing navigation speed, so that there would be a 30 percent reduction in emissions. However, it would be less feasible than it seems commercially speaking, as it would slow shipping times.

Last year the European Commission signed a bill that would force cargo ships to upgrade their propulsion systems as soon as possible. The proposal consists in making the emissions of these huge vessels under European jurisdiction, bypassing that of the IMO and forcing the shipping giants to pay for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted starting from 2023 to all ships passing through European ports.

The increased focus on controls lightly affects companies that ship consumer goods, such as food and clothing. On the other hand, it impacts heavily the tanker fleets carrying fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive commodities facing a loss of demand as the global economy moves towards decarbonization.

Maersk is one of the largest shipping companies in the world and is also the first in search for low-carbon fuels for its fleet. Their researchers are considering fuels such as hydrogen, biofuels and LNG, which could play an important role in the transition from low-quality diesel to more sustainable fuel. Another ecological alternative to new types of fuel for cargo ships that has attracted the attention of the largest investors in the maritime sector is the one of retrofitting, using wind energy as the Egyptians did in 3500 BC.

The largest companies transporting goods by sea are betting on this new technology, convinced that it will reduce GHG emissions by 50 percent by 2050, compared to 2008 levels. Three of the most interesting projects to limit GHG emissions and harness wind energy are led by Airseas, BAR Technologies, and Michelin. AirSeas wants to use giant kites that pull cargo ships with the power of wind, BAR Technologies plans on employing 37.5 meters high rigid sails that will be placed on the deck of a ship, and Michelin will install a 100 square meter inflatable and retractable automated wing sail, which will be installed on a container ship for the first time by the end of the year.

The economic influence of private investors has already been crucial, in many occasions, for the progress towards a less polluted world and may again be crucial for a decarbonization in the shipping sector where regulators and policy makers have failed.


Food for thought:

  • Do you think the emissions target to be achieved by 2050 is feasible?
  • What are your thoughts on sustainability solutions for cargo ships transport proposed by the companies mentioned in the article?
  • What do you think about the contradiction involving Saudi Arabia by providing funds to make the shipping sector more sustainable, but at the same time maintaining economic interests in supplying petroleum derived fuel?

Suggested readings:

A political point of view on the pollution of cargo ships

Technical information on the type of fuels used

Effects of ship pollution on the environment and long-term international projects of transport sustainability

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Cargo Ships Pollution Imp…

by Luca Pompili time to read: 4 min
0