Does the Environment Suffer for Shipping?

The 21st century concept of ‘going green’ is everywhere. From day to day recycling to conglomerate carbon footprints, bloggers and journalists alike bombard us with environmental warnings. Shipping has been labeled the ‘greenest’ transport method, but with its rapid rise due to globalization, is this still the case?

Shipping makes up for roughly 90% of world trade, and the only thing more impressive than the vast size of these container cargo ships are the clouds of black smoke being issued from them. The air pollution emitted from shipping lines makes up for 18-30% of all nitrogen oxide pollution and 9% of all sulfur dioxide pollution, as well as containing carcinogens. These pollutants go on to cause acid rain, respiratory problems and cancer. The diesel engines and bunker fuel are at the heart of these problems, but the damage they cause isn’t always visible.

Various types of vessel discharge also make up a large part of the environmental damage caused by shipping. The most media prevalent one of these being oil. The environmental impact of shipping only ever seems to rear its head after oil spills: wildlife (often birds) covered in thick black gloop on a beach surrounded by Greenpeace activists. Yet, this shouldn’t be the only environmental damage we are aware of. Other sewage, ballast water and bilge water all have big effects on our environment. Bilge water, made up of the leaks and waste products of the ship’s fuel and engine, and sewage both release dangerous chemicals which can damage wildlife directly or damage the marine environment in which they live. Ballast water, on the other hand, rather than containing pollutants originating from the ship, contains plants, animals, bacteria and viruses that have been dragged by the ship from elsewhere in the world. Any of these biological species can cause extensive damage to aquatic ecosystems that they are not native to, as well as posing a potential threat to humans.

Ultimately marine life can be severely affected. Changes to the Ph in environments can kill habitats and marine species. Water sources are poisoned. Wildlife can even be caught up in the ship’s propellers or face a fatal impact with the ship itself, sometimes posing threats of extinction. Shipping doesn’t appear to be as safe as once thought.

But, there are some attempts being made to reduce the environmental impact, even if a little later than other transport industries. Maersk became the first shipping line to independently verify carbon emissions vessel by vessel. The International Maritime Organisation aims to cut sulfur dioxide emissions to 0.5% by 2020, as well as issuing other environmental legislation. So, there are attempts being made to curb the environmental damage of shipping, just slowly.

Posted in categories: Environment, Shipping