Environmental and health impact of shipping seriously underestimated

May 18, 2009

New research suggests that governments have been seriously underestimating the levels of pollution from shipping.

Reports from several studies suggest container ships cause much more health damage than cars and could be taking years off people’s lives.

Research from America says pollution from the world’s cargo ships leads to 60 000 premature deaths per year in America, while European research suggests the figure could be 39 000 in the EU.

Another study by the Danish environmental agency says shipping emissions cost the Danish health service over €4.5 billion per year, mainly treating cancers and heart problems.

Some reports suggest a container ship using low-grade ship bunker fuels can cause the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50 million cars. The same calculations would mean 15 of the world’s biggest tankers would emit the same amount of pollutants as all cars on the planet.

The USA announced last month that it was setting up a 230-mile (370km) ‘buffer zone’ along the entire American coast, which it believes will save up to 8000 lives a year.

The EU, which has so far failed to tackle shipping emissions with the same priority as land-based transport, is planning two low-emissions marine zones, likely to start after 2015 in the Baltic and North Seas.

The problem of pollutants from ships has been long known, but the magnitude has risen over the past decade largely because of China’s rapid increase in exports. That suggests a solution needs to come through the International Maritime Organisation, but progress on tackling the environmental impact of shipping through IMO has been painfully slow.


The Dutch consultancy CE Delft has developed an Environmental Ship Index, which will come into operation next year on a voluntary basis.

Commissioned by five of Europe’s leading ports (Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Bremen and Hamburg), the index has been developed ‘to speed up environment-friendly shipping’. All ship operators will be asked next year to volunteer data so ships’ progress on reducing air pollution (NOx and SOx) and CO2 emissions.

In a separate development, diplomats were expected to adopt a global convention on ship recycling at an IMO meeting in Hong Kong being held as Bulletin went to press.

The convention is intended to make ship scrapping safe and environmentally sound, but has been severely criticised by a large number of human rights, environmental and labour NGOs who say it is ‘a step backwards’. More than 100 organisations from 30 countries signed a ‘global statement of concern‘ describing the convention as ‘a legal shipwreck waiting to happen’, and calling for ‘beaching’, the practice whereby a ship is run aground on tidal flats and dismantled there, to be banned.

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