Cargo ships and air pollution, it’s much worse than you think!

Flickr photo courtesy of 3mZee.

I was alarmed by this front page article in the Wall Street Journal about cargo ships and air pollution.

I had no idea that collectively, ships that are 100 tons or larger put out more greenhouse gases than all but the top 6 COUNTRIES in the world.

The corpuscles of the global economy, ships carry more than 90% of the world’s merchandise by volume, and the tonnage of cargo sent by ships has tripled since 1970. Yet the fuel propelling them is cheap and dirty and produces an especially noxious exhaust.

Ships release more sulfur dioxide, a sooty pollutant associated with acid rain, than all of the world’s cars, trucks and buses combined, according to a March study by the International Council on Clean Transportation. That study also found that ships produced an estimated 27% of the world’s smog-causing nitrogen-oxide emissions in 2005. Only six countries in the world emitted more greenhouse gases — which trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the globe — than was produced collectively in 2001 by all ships larger than 100 tons, according to the study and United Nations statistics.

But demands for solutions are intensifying. Assertive governments and a few ports that wield substantial commercial power are proving that local action can reverberate internationally. Since Jan. 1, the state of California has required ships sailing within 24 miles of its shores to use cleaner-burning fuels in their auxiliary engines. Similar to a 2005 measure governing Europe’s Baltic Sea region, the California law restricts access to America’s two largest ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach. Ships that don’t comply can be fined or impounded.

One big culprit is the industry’s favorite fuel. Most ships rely on residual fuel oil, also known as bunker fuel, to power their huge engines. Bunker fuel is a tar-like sludge left over from the refining of petroleum. It often contains toxic heavy metals such as lead and vanadium and is collected from the bottoms of the distillation towers in which refineries process crude. Raw, unheated bunker fuel has the composition and consistency of asphalt.

I can’t quote the whole article, so I encourage you to click through and read it.