Editorial: Shipping must pay its bill

On 26 March, the United States and Canada hailed and praised the UN International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) adoption of an emission control area (ECA) all along the North American coastline (see article on p. 15).

Less than two months later a group of European industry and shipowner organisations sent an open letter to the EU, claiming that the ECA sulphur standards are “unacceptable”, and urging the EU to act “to amend the IMO decision.”

Currently, ocean-going ships burn extremely dirty fuels that contain on average 3,000 times the sulphur content of road diesel fuel – even in ECAs ships are allowed to burn fuel with 1,500 times more sulphur.

Five years from now, in 2015, the new ECA standards will apply. But even then shipping fuel can still contain 100 times more sulphur than road fuels are allowed to today.
In their letter to the EU, the industry groups claim that “the environmental benefits are questionable and might even be negative.” But they fail to provide any evidence or references to substantiate this claim.

Damage to health and the environment by sulphur pollution is scientifically established and well-documented. That is why land-based emission sources in the EU have cut their sulphur outlets by 80 per cent since 1980. In the same time period, the shipping industry has evaded its fair share of responsibility, and instead markedly increased its emissions.

The industry groups complain about the expected increase in fuel costs. Clearly cleaner fuels are more expensive than dirty ones, but they also provide great health and environmental benefits.

The US EPA estimates that by 2030 the implementation of the ECA limits will prevent up to 32,000 premature deaths, 1.5 million work days lost, and more than 5 million cases of acute respiratory symptoms. Further, the annual monetised health benefits are estimated to amount to between US$110 and 280 billion, outweighing the costs (US$3.1 billion) by a factor of between 30:1 and 90:1, and making it an extremely cost-effective regulation.

The fact that the benefits are much higher than the costs becomes even more obvious if the very significant non-monetised environmental benefits are also considered, such as reduced acidification of ecosystems. Currently emissions from shipping in the Baltic Sea and North Sea ECAs are responsible for roughly a quarter of the total sulphur deposition on Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Moreover, several studies have shown that the costs of cutting air pollutant emissions from ships are lower – sometimes much lower – than the cost of further reducing emissions from sources on land. So by cutting emissions from shipping, the EU could achieve its agreed and adopted health and environmental objectives at a lower overall cost to society as a whole.

The obvious way forward is for the EU and its member states to follow the example of the United States and Canada and designate all sea areas around Europe (the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) as “full” Emission Control Areas, i.e. covering all the major air pollutants (sulphur, PM and NOx). (Currently only the Baltic Sea and the North Sea have ECA status, and this is limited to sulphur control.)

It is not acceptable for the shipping industry to keep on transferring the cost of its pollution to society at large. The IMO regulations must be fully implemented . To encourage the use of the best techniques, and to speed up the introduction of cleaner fuels and ships they should be complemented by economic instruments, such as emission charges.

Christer Ågren

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