There was good news this week. The International Maritime Organisation agreed on Thursday to cap the sulfur content of marine fuels sold around the world at 0.5%. Previously, the amount of sulfur in marine fuel has been as high as 3.5%. The not so good news is that the cap doesn’t become effective until 2020, but better late than never, as they say. Advocates predict the move will save millions of lives in decades to come.
The announcement shines a spotlight on the emissions those ocean going behemoths that make international trade possible. They are what keep the shelves at Walmart stocked and allow Amazon to wow us with the wonders of same day delivery.
Figures lie and liars figures. By some calculations, ocean going ships are the most energy efficient way to get things from one place to another. That’s if you use units of measure called “ton-miles.” Let’s say you want to ship 10,000 cars from China to the US. You could hire 10,000 drivers (work with me here. It’s just a theoretical exercise) or you could put them on a ship. Doing the math, if we calculate the amount of fuel needed to move that ship across the Pacific compared to the amount of fuel needed to drive 10,000 cars 10,000 miles, the ship is way more efficient. That’s a good thing, right?
Bunker oil and emissions
Not necessarily. Large ocean going cargo ships burn something called bunker oil. It is what is left over at the end of the refining process that turns crude oil into gasoline, diesel, heating oil, jet fuel and all the thousands of other products that make modern life possible, including plastics, pesticides, and fertilizers. It’s really hardly a fuel at all. It’s more of a highly toxic goo so thick it needs to be heated to make it flow. Can you wrap your head around the idea of burning fuel to heat something so it can be burned as a fuel? Crazy, huh?
Speaking of crazy, people go berserk when they think about the nitrous oxide emissions that mean ol’ Volkswagen allowed its diesel powered cars to spew out their tailpipes for years while they lied to regulators. Sure, that was bad. But it’s insignificant in comparison to the NOx emissions from large ships. Listen to what author Edward Humes told NPR last spring. Humes has written a book entitled Door To Door that details the actual cost of shipping everything from coffee bean to cars.
“If you take 160 [large ships], the emissions from just those vessels, of the type of emissions that cause smog and particulate pollution, those 160 mega ships will be the equivalent of the emissions of all the cars in the world. And that’s just a tiny fraction of the worldwide fleet. Together, the cargo fleet generates about 2 to 3 percent of world carbon emissions, which would – if that fleet were a country, it would put them in the top 10 emitters of carbon dioxide in the world. In fact, it would put it ahead of Germany – the fourth-largest economy in the world.”
160 ships spew out as much bad stuff as all the hundreds of millions of cars in the world? That’s crazy talk, right? Consider this. There are more than 6000 of those ships crawling all over the globe every day. We castigate Volkswagen for being heartless corporate brutes but demand the big box store down the street have the lowest prices possible. Hypocrisy, thy name is consumers.
Let’s get back to the new sulfur agreement. Sulfur dioxide emissions are linked to premature deaths from lung cancer and heart disease. The current limit on sulfur content for marine fuels is 3,500 times higher than for diesel in European road vehicles. The new limit will lower sulfur dioxide emissions from shipping by 85%. That’s wonderful news, but it still allows ships to emit 525 times more SO2 than we allow from automobiles. One study says the new rules will reduce the incidence of premature deaths by 200,000 a year.
Changes complex and costly
Making significant changes to the fuel ships use is not simple. That heavy bunker oil actually acts as a lubricant for internal engine components. Substituting other fuels means equipping marine engines with more advanced lubrication systems to avoid engine failure. On a global basis, that means billions of dollars in upgrades. And don’t forget that more refined fuels cost more than the sludge these ships run on today.
Once a ship is on the high seas, it is essentially a little nation all its own, not subject to any rules or regulations other than the immutable laws of capitalism which ignore any consideration other than maximizing profits by minimizing costs. Many nations have regulations that dictate the use of low emissions fuels within 200 miles of land. Since those fuels cost more and since many of the world’s busiest ports are overcrowded, ship captains are instructed to loiter just outside the 200 mile limit and burn cheap bunker oil until there is a pier available. Then they switch fuels, come straight into port, unload, and high tail it back out to sea as quickly as possible so they can resume burning the dirty bunker oil
Once back on the high seas, whatever emissions come out of the ships’ funnels is not counted toward the carbon footprint of any nation. It’s as if they don’t exist. Just as long as the dress for little Suzie’s birthday or Billy’s baseball glove costs as little as possible, everyone is happy. Except for the people dying prematurely due to air pollution, of course, but they really don’t have an effective voice. We are happy to ignore the consequences of our collective actions just so long as the great engine of global commerce keeps turning.
Shipping companies welcome agreement
The new agreement on sulfur levels in fuels is actually welcomed by many of the world’s largest shipping companies. They are well aware of the environmental damage that results from their activities but are reluctant to act unless all parties are on board with changes. Otherwise, the increased costs for fuel and revised engines would put them at a competitive disadvantage.
— Maersk (@Maersk) October 27, 2016
Bill Hemmings, shipping director at advocacy group Transport & Environment, called the move a “landmark decision”.
“This decision reduces the contribution of shipping to the world’s air pollution impact from about 5% down to 1.5% and will save millions of lives in the coming decades,” he said in a statement. “Now the focus should shift towards implementing this decision, which is a big issue since it’s not yet clear who should police ships on the high seas, and how.”
That’s right, Mr. Hemmings. The devil is in the details.