Ship pollution causes 50,000 deaths per year

The number of premature deaths in Europe caused by air pollutant emissions from international shipping is estimated to amount to approximately 49,500 in the year 2000, and rise to 53,200 in 2020.

Fore some the sun sets early due to shipping. Photo: Javad Saharban/Creative Commons

Air pollutant emissions from ships operating in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea were responsible for annual health damage in Europe valued at €22 billion at the emission levels of year 2000. By 2020, this figure is expected to come down to €14.1 billion, as a result of implementation of the stricter ship fuel sulphur standards agreed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2008 (see Box).

However, since these stricter fuel standards apply only in designated Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs), and the Baltic Sea and the North Sea so far are the only such areas in Europe, and ship traffic overall is expected to continue to increase, the total health-related costs in Europe of international ship traffic are expected to increase from €58.4 billion in the year 2000 to €61.4 billion in 2020.

These figures come from a recent study1 by the Danish Centre of Energy, Environment and Health (CEEH), using the EVA (Economic Value of Air pollution) computer model. The research project aims at mapping the true costs of damage caused by air pollutant emissions from various sectors. Different scenarios assessing the human health impacts and associated external costs from different emission sectors in Denmark and from international ship traffic, respectively, have been investigated for the years 2000, 2007, 2011 and 2020.

It is noted by the authors that economic valuations of air pollution damage currently focus primarily on health damage, while impacts on the general environment, including ecosystems, usually are not valued in monetary terms.

The total health-related costs of air pollution in Europe are calculated to be more than €800 billion at the pollution levels of year 2000. This figure is estimated to decrease to €537 billion in 2020, provided that EU countries reduce their emissions from land-based sources in line with what is needed to achieve the environmental targets of the EU's Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, and provided that the SECA standards for shipping in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea are complied with.

Comparing the air pollution impacts from shipping with those from land-based sources shows that in the year 2000 emissions from international shipping were responsible for an estimated seven per cent of the total health damage from air pollution in Europe, and that its share will increase to 12 per cent by 2020.

Specifically for Denmark, it is estimated that the total national emissions of air pollution from inside the country cause health damage in Europe valued at €4.9 billion each year, of which €800 million occurs within Denmark.

Regarding emissions from Danish sources, it was found that the agricultural sector is the largest contributor to human health impacts and related external costs within the country, with a share of approximately 40 per cent. Road traffic contributes about 19 per cent, domestic heating sources 16 per cent, non-road mobile sources seven per cent, and large power plants six per cent.

Air pollutant emissions from international shipping in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea are responsible for health damage in Denmark valued at more than €620 million per year (year 2000), decreasing to €360 million in 2020. The authors conclude that the SECA regulation that limits the sulphur content in ship fuel to a maximum of 0.1 per cent as from 2015, is expected to significantly reduce the external costs, and that "a similar regulation of international ship traffic in the whole world would have a tremendous positive effect on human health."

It is however noted that the health impacts from ship emissions in the SECAs will remain significant after 2015. The reason being that the emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from ship traffic are not regulated by the SECA standard, and NOx emissions from international shipping are therefore expected to continue to increase more or less in line with the projected increase in shipping activities.

The number of premature deaths in Europe caused by air pollutant emissions from international shipping is estimated to amount to approximately 49,500 in the year 2000, and rise to 53,200 in 2020.

These figures could be compared to the total number of premature deaths in the whole of Europe in the year 2000 due to air pollution, which is estimated at about 680,000, and is expected to decrease to some 450,000 in the year 2020.

The study has also looked at the cost per kilogramme of sulphur emitted from international ship traffic in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, and found that it is comparable to other sectors, such as major power plants.

According to the authors, there are two important aspects of ship emissions compared to other emission sectors. Firstly, the height of the ship emissions is much lower than the height of the stacks from the power plants, which means that the emissions of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide (SO2) are mixed in a lower volume of air, which results in higher concentrations near the surface. So when the emitted air pollution from ships is transported over land, where people are located, the contribution from ships will result in a more direct exposure.

Secondly, most of the external costs related to the emission of sulphur are associated with the secondary sulphate particles. It takes hours to days for SO2 to be chemically transformed into secondary sulphate particles, and therefore sources located far away from the highly populated areas (e.g. international ship traffic) can have a larger impact than sources near or inside the populated areas.

Christer Ågren

International ship emission regulations

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), under ANNEX VI of MARPOL 73/78 (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships), has adopted controls on sulphur in marine fuels.

The global fuel sulphur limit is currently 4.5%, and will be reduced to 3.50% in 2012 and then further lowered to 0.50%, but not until 2020 (or 2025, subject to a review in 2018). In specially designated sulphur emission control areas (SECAs), the current limit is set at 1.00% sulphur. It will be tightened to 0.10% by 2015.

There are currently only two existing SECAs in Europe, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, including the English Channel. In addition most of the coastal waters – within 200 nautical miles of the coast – of USA and Canada have been designated as "combined" ECAs for both SO2 and NOx.

It should be noted that exhaust gas cleaning systems (e.g. scrubbers) that achieve equivalent sulphur emission reductions may be used as an alternative to low-sulphur fuels to fulfil the IMO's sulphur requirements.


1 Assessment of health-cost externalities of air pollution at the national level using the EVA model system (March 2011). By J. Brandt et al. CEEH Scientific Report No 3. Centre for Energy, Environment and Health. Available at:

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