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If you think aviation emissions are bad, shipping is even worse

If you think aviation emissions are bad, the even bigger problem is the unregulated shipping industry.

In terms of GHG emissions, shipping is already responsible for1:

· 5% of global CO2 emissions

· double global aviation emissions

· double Britain’s total emissions.

And it is growing fast. Under business as usual scenarios GHG emissions from shipping will rise 72% in next 15 years1 which is obviously incompatible with the internationally agreed 2°C goal that worldwide emissions be at least halved from 1990 levels by 20502.

If global shipping was a country:

· It would be the sixth largest producer of GHG emissions

• Only the US, China, Russia, India and Japan emit more CO2 than the world’s shipping fleet3

All the current port expansion projects are underpinning the business as usual scenario. Port of Melbourne for example, is planning to quadruple its container throughput by mid century – which means Victorians would have to more than triple our current container consumption per person, from 0.4 per annum to 1.4 container per person per annum.




Shipping is often touted as being the most efficient mode of transport – which it may be in terms of unit cost- but it has a deadly legacy for our environment, climate and our health. The 90,000+ cargo ships worldwide are responsible for:

• 9% of global sulphur oxide pollution

• 30% of global nitrogen oxide pollution

In the air, SO2 and NOx convert into fine sulphate and nitrate aerosol particles, and once in the lungs, these particles are small enough to enter the blood

• Accounting for ~ 50,000 premature deaths p.a. in EUROPE, at an annual cost of €58 billion4

• These particles can cause emphysema, congestive heart failure, birth defects and premature deaths

Other research5 suggests the particulate pollution causes:

· 60,000 deaths p.a. worldwide

• Costs $330 billion p.a. treating lung and heart diseases


5. Health risks of shipping pollution have been underestimated

The shipping industry, with its flags of convenience, impenetrable registration and ownership, its transfer of thousands of marine and terrestrial pests (Fire ants in Queensland arrived by ship) and diseases such as cholera in ballast water, are a blight on the planet. And the industry avoids being held responsible for the mess.

The Prestige tanker disaster in Spain in 2002, spilled 84 million litres of oil on thousands of kms of coast of Spain, France and Portugal. It caused $12 billion in economic loss and clean up costs.

Finally, in 2013 the Spanish High court concluded it was impossible to establish criminal responsibility and the Captain & Chief Engineer were found not guilty of crimes against the environment.

Every year there are multiple such disasters around the world. The shipping industry is the James Hardie and tobacco industry of the sea.

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Thanks Jenny for a well researched article. Shipping is the ugly duck that makes the other ugly ducks look pretty. Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) comes literally from the bottom of the barrel ie when crude oil has been refined and petrol, kerosene, naphtha (distillate, diesel) has been removed, HFO is what is left over and is used in shipping because of its abundant availability and cheapness.

In addition to pumping carbon dioxide, sulphur dixode and nitrous oxide into the heavens, ships also emit many heavy metals. SOx, PM10s (Particulate Matter) and Heavy Metals are considered to be the most dangerous pollutants on the planet. Furthermore, these pollutants are more intensive around coastlines and ports. Anybody for a cruise??

Hi John,

Thanks for the compliment.

There are plenty of hair raising stories about the dirty old, faceless, shameless shipping industry. How about the one where in 1991 a ship discharged ballast that had been taken on in Bangladesh into a bay in Peru, where a shellfish industry had thrived. Soon after 1 million people fell ill (Peru population of 20 million at the time) and 10,000 people died of cholera. The strain of cholera had never before been seen in Peru and was traced to the port in Bangladesh where the ballast had been taken on. It has caused so many incidents around the world, and yet the shipping industry just keeps on sailing past- without a care in the world, and never held properly to account.

I’m adding another article soon about the cruise industry, and no I won’t be going on a cruise!


Jenny W