Ship Pollution Takes Center Stage In Europe

Monday, November 20, 2000
Smoke from Europe's ships is fast becoming the biggest source of acid rain-causing sulfur pollution, a recent report said. By 2010 ships will account for 30-40 percent of total EU sulfur emissions as land-based polluters are curbed and shipping's contribution to the overall picture increases, said a recent report to the European Commission by marine consultant BMT. "Shipping hasn't so far been asked to contribute, but the world thinks it's about time," one of the report's authors Mel Davies told Reuters. The report said ships sailing through European waters produce 1.9 million tons of sulfur dioxide per year. "Shipping in European waters is the equivalent of 390 power plants of 50 megawatts running continuously," it said. The bulk of sulfur emissions are produced in the western approaches to the English Channel and in Mediterranean shipping lanes between the Suez Canal and Gibraltar. But efforts by the European Union and shipping's legislative body the IMO to cut air pollution from shipping have been ineffective. The European Commission issued a directive in July 2000, limiting sulfur content in marine gas oil and diesel to 0.2 per cent but exempting the biggest sulfur pollutant, heavy fuel oil. About 140 million tons of heavy fuel oil is burned by ships each year, nearly seven times the amount of diesel and gas oil consumed. For its part, the ILO adopted in September 1997 a global cap of 4.5 percent on the sulfur content of fuel oil under Annex 6 of the international maritime treaty governing sea pollution MARPOL. But the cap is considered useless, given that the average sulfur content of marine heavy fuel oil is no more than 2.9 percent. "It will make very little contribution to emissions reduction in European waters," said the BMT report. What will make a difference, however, is an amendment made to Annex 6 in March which puts a 1.5 percent cap on sulfur content of fuel oil burned in the North Sea, English Channel and the Baltic, provided enough countries sign up to it. Annex 6, which needs ratification by at least 15 states comprising at least 50 percent of the world's tonnage to become law, has only been ratified by Singapore, Sweden and Norway. In addition, the March amendment does not cover the rest of Europe, notably the heavily trafficked Mediterranean where emissions from ships' smoke-stacks will continue to choke coastal cities. Piraeus, one of the largest Mediterranean ports near the Greek capital Athens suffers from severe smog pollution during summer months, caused in no small measure by its busy shipping terminals, according the Greek shipping and environment group Helmepa. "If anyone would like to see the Annex succeed, it is the residents of Piraeus," Helmepa's director-general Dimitris Mitsatsos said. Although acidification as a result of air pollution is falling in northern Europe, it is still high, says the BMT report, with over 60 percent of Netherlands ecosystems still expected to be suffering excess acidification by 2010. BMT has considered a combination of measures to bring ships' emissions in check, which would include incentive schemes but would bring the total bill for shipping to about $3 billion per year. BMT concluded that a 1.0 percent cap on sulfur in marine fuel oil would be most effective, and would not be prohibitively expensive. The cap should be imposed on fuel oil burned within European waters rather than simply on that sold in European ports, it said.

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