How often do you purchase stuff online? Perhaps you subscribe to a monthly wine club, purchase sustainable fashion or order secondhand books. Each time you buy something, the product is usually sealed in a box or mailer of some sort and shipped straight to your door.
Businesses use a variety of methods to transport goods, including: ships, trains, plants and trucks.
While essential to the world’s economy, these methods produce carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Ships add a significant amount of pollution to the atmosphere. Along with CO2, they emit pollutants like black carbon (BC), nitrogen oxides (NOx), nitrous oxide (N2O) and sulfur. These contaminants trap heat in the atmosphere and aid in the creation of more greenhouse gases. Black carbon, for example, lowers the Earth’s reflectivity. It also absorbs light, which dries the surrounding air.
These emissions harm human health and our environment.
The impact of air pollution
Marine shipping, compared to other options, is the most energy-efficient way to move cargo. Still, it accounts for roughly 20% of air pollution.
If you could scan the sea from above, you’d count roughly 100,000 transport ships at any given time. This number has grown 4% each year since the 1990s, a reaction stemming from the rapid transoceanic distribution of goods.
Experts claim that without measures to reduce CO2 from shipping, emissions could rise to 1.48 billion metric tons by 2020 — the equivalent of putting 65 million additional cars on the road.
The impact of air pollution is far-reaching, including lost productivity, increased health care spending, decreased quality of life, stunted crops and more — all of which costs the economy billions.
According to a recent study, shipping pollution causes 400,000 premature deaths each year — more than 1,000 per day. Fatalities are due to ailments caused by airborne contaminants, such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Shipping also produces 14 million cases of childhood asthma annually.
In addition to harming human health, air pollution adversely affects the environment in several ways, such as:
- Haze: This is tiny pollution particles in the air that obscure what we see, even in sunlight. Picture city smog produced by power plants and cars.
- Acid rain: Nitrogen and sulfur oxides form precipitation with harmful amounts of acids. Acid rain damages trees and contaminates water bodies.
- Wildlife harm: Animals, like humans, experience health problems when exposed to pollutants. Air toxicity contributes to congenital disabilities, reproductive failure and disease.
- Eutrophication: In this process, water with high levels of nutrients stimulate algae blooms, which can kill fish and plants.
- Plant damage: Ground-level ozone reduces agricultural crop and commercial forest yields. It also leaves plants more susceptible to disease and pests.
To reduce the impact of shipping pollution on health and climate change, the world must take action.
The future of marine shipping
Starting January 1, 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will limit the sulfur content of fuel used on ships to 0.50% mass by mass. This change will limit emissions from vessels and reduce air pollution. It will also have significant health and environmental benefits around the globe, particularly for cities near ports.
Remember those premature death and childhood asthma cases? According to experts, cleaner marine fuels, such as low-sulfur and liquefied natural gas, will reduce mortality rates by 34% — representing a 2.6% global reduction in cardiovascular and lung cancer deaths.
Shipowners can also install scrubbers, exhaust gas cleaning units that remove sulfur. Hamish Norton, a shipping executive at Star Bulk Carriers, claims his company installed these units (subscriber only) on almost all of its fleet — 100 vessels. The project cost $170 million to implement.
Scrubbers remove waste from fuel, yet it still has to go somewhere. Some ships store it on board until they reach land. Others dump it in the water. Norton claims the current dilemma is choosing which you care about more — the air or the water.
Speed reduction is another effective way to reduce emissions on a vessel. Pollutants, especially CO2, are proportional to fuel consumption. The higher the speed, the more fuel consumed. On the flip side, slowing down can result in reduced waste and significant savings.
In 2010, a reduction in speed of 10% across the global fleet would have resulted in a 23.3% cut in emissions.
Action is needed to combat shipping pollution
Despite the upcoming reduction of contaminants, shipping pollution will still account for numerous deaths and illnesses. Regulators must consider stringent standards beyond 2020 to benefit health outcomes and reduce the effects of climate change.
Are companies prepared to make the shift toward cleaner fuel? Will governments enforce compliance? If they do, will it be enough to make a substantial change? Hopefully, the answers to these questions will all be yes — but that remains to be seen. It will take a concerted effort to make a real change.
- These Travel Companies are Going Sustainable and Tackling Climate Change
- 5 Fun Ways to Teach Your Kids About Climate Change and Protecting the Environment
- 30 Things You Can Do If You’re Feeling Helpless About Climate Change
- UN Climate Change Report: Land Clearing and Farming Contribute a Third of the World’s Greenhouse Gases
- Rise For Climate: Activists Call for 100% Clean Renewable Energy
- Green with Rage: Women Climate Change Leaders Face Online Attacks
Feature image via Unsplash.