Cargo Ships: the World’s Worst Polluters
Every day the clothes, tech and toys that fill the shelves in our shopping centres seem to arrive there by magic. In fact, about nine out of 10 items are shipped halfway around the world on board some of the biggest and dirtiest machines on the planet.
It has been estimated that just one of these container ships, the length of around six football pitches, can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. The emissions from 15 of these mega-ships match those from all the cars in the world. And if the shipping industry were a country, it would be ranked between Germany and Japan as the sixth-largest contributor to global CO2 emissions.
Most of the pollution occurs far out at sea, out of the sight and minds of consumers – and out of the reach of any government. Now, an alliance of environmentalists, researchers and industry organisations, as well as ship owners and builders, fed up with the sluggishness of the industry’s response to its emissions problem, is attempting to do something about it.
Many cargo ships still use “bunker fuel” — the sludgy dregs of the petroleum refining process. The noxious blend is dirt-cheap, making it possible to charge next to nothing to ship goods internationally. All of which means our unbridled consumerism hitches a ride on some of the dirtiest vehicles on earth.
The industry’s reliance on high-carbon fuel poses a major stumbling block for global efforts to rein in pollution. A few companies are ramping up investment in pilot projects that use renewable fuels and cleaner technologies. And a vocal minority within the industry is clamoring for a maritime climate policy to spur more innovation. But on the whole, there’s widespread reluctance to adopt meaningful change.
Clean shipping advocates plan to spotlight the sector’s emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which opens today in Bonn, Germany. Known as COP23, the gathering marks two years since the world agreed in Paris on a landmark climate accord — one that the Trump administration plans to abandon. The agreement, however, excluded pollution from international shipping and aviation in its targets to limit global warming. Officials had argued that those industries don’t easily fit into national or regional emissions schemes — and so they were left to regulate themselves.
Experts say regulatory action and big, bold investments will be essential to curbing the shipping industry’s contribution to global warming. Left unchecked, its carbon footprint is expected to soar in coming decades — just as emissions from cars and power plants flatline or decline. That means shipping could cancel out progress in other sectors.