Cleaner ship fuel could save thousands of lives

As the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the London-based United Nations body that regulates shipping across the world, began meetings this week to review and potentially tighten air pollution standards for the world’s shipping fleet, continuing scientific research has found that the use of cleaner marine fuel could prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths from shipping air pollution each year.

Results of this ongoing work were released recently by the US-based Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and submitted to the IMO by the Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) delegation. The updated analysis estimates that the number of people dying from heart and lung disease as a result of under-regulated air pollution from international shipping will total over 80,000 by 2012, but also found that this death toll can be cut by half or more by substantially reducing the sulfur content of marine fuel.

This new work builds on the landmark scientific report published in the December 15, 2007 issue of the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology. The original peer-reviewed study, led by Dr. James J. Corbett at the University of Delaware and Dr. James Winebrake of the Rochester Institute of Technology, ‘Mortality from Ship Emissions: A Global Assessment,’ was the first research study to estimate global premature deaths linked to harmful emissions from ocean-going vessels. The latest analysis, ‘Mitigating Health Impacts of Ship
Pollution through Low Sulfur Fuel Options: Initial Comparison of Scenarios,’ conducted by most of the same scientists, found that switching to low sulfur marine fuels can reduce premature mortalities by 50-60%, or about 40-50,000 avoided deaths annually.

The new research, like the study before it, relates emissions of air pollutants from ships to annual cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths. Using the same methodology as their previous work, the scientists have estimated mortality changes associated with a shift to low-sulfur marine fuels under several policy scenarios. One of these policy scenarios assumed the use of marine distillate fuel with a sulfur content of 0.5% worldwide, while the other assumed the use of marine distillate fuel with a sulfur content of 0.1% by ships sailing within 200 miles of the world’s coastlines. For comparison, the study’s baseline, or no-action, scenario assumed the continued worldwide use of bunker crude, also called heavy fuel oil, with an average sulfur content of about 2.7%.

International negotiations on new air pollution standards for oceangoing ships are presently at a critical stage. These negotiations have been ongoing for about 15 years at the IMO, the international body charged with regulating international marine environmental issues. To date, the IMO’s only action on ship air emissions - adopted in 1997 and implemented in 2005 - codified improvements already adopted by most of the industry. However, new, tighter air pollution limits are expected to finally be adopted later this year.

“The IMO cannot continue to ignore the mounting evidence that action to reduce air pollution from ships could avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths each year,” said David Marshall, senior counsel at the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, an observer in the IMO discussions.

“The IMO must act promptly to clean up the shipping industry and its fuel.”

Although ship pollution affects the health of communities in coastal and inland regions around the world, the regulation of polluting emissions from ocean ships lags far behind land-based
sources, Marshall noted. Emissions from land-based transportation sources have been reduced significantly in recent years in the United States, Europe, Japan and other countries. As a result,
air pollutants from shipping in European waters are projected to be greater than such emissions from European land-based sources within a decade or so. And the primary shipping fuel, bunker crude, currently ranks among the dirtiest fuel on the planet, containing thousands of times more sulfur than petrol and diesel used for road transport.

"It is a disgrace that thousands are dying needlessly as a result of the IMO's intransigence on air pollution,” stated Joao Viera, Policy Officer with the Brussels-based European Federation for Transport and the Environment. “If the organization fails to come up with a plan within the next few months it will be up to the EU and other regions to do the job for them. Continued waiting is simply not an option."

Marshall also emphasized that the benefits from cleaner marine fuel and reduced emissions would far outweigh the costs. The Clean Air Task Force has estimated a first-order social benefit of the mortality reductions projected by the new analysis. Using cost methodology employed by U.S. EPA to value the benefits of particulate emission reductions, CATF estimates that the 40,000 to 50,000 lives saved annually by cleaning up marine fuel will produce societal benefits of about $225 to $275 billion per year. Cleanup costs are much lower.

CATF is participating with FOEI in the IMO negotiations. They believe the IMO should require reductions of NOx emissions in the 90% range, and reductions of SO2 emissions in the 70-90% range, for both new and existing ships as soon as possible, but no later than 2015. These emission reductions can be accomplished through the use of low sulphur fuels as well as a substantial variety of engine modifications and after-treatment devices. Substantial particulate matter reductions are also needed, according to CATF and FOEI, but the co-benefits of NOx and SO2 reductions should be considered.

Clean Air Task Force helped support the ongoing research with funds from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund. The new analysis is available on the Internet at:
http://www.catf.us/projects/international_air_quality/shipping.

Contact the press team

Nico Muzi
Communications Director
+32 (0)484 27 87 91 
nico.muzi@transportenvironment.org

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