Out of sight, out of mind. That simple phrase pretty well sums up how most of us feel about carbon emissions and other pollutants from the world’s fleet of cargo ships and oil tankers. 98% of what they do occurs far out to sea, where no laws apply and the only rule is to maximize profits.
The world’s fleet of commercial vessels relies primarily on something called “bunker oil” — a sludge-like product that is essentially what’s left over after petroleum is reduced to its component parts by refineries. Similar to road tar, it is so thick it has to be heated to make it flow from the storage tanks where it is kept to the enormous diesel engines that power ships.
Since it is the crud left over at the end of the refining process, it contains high concentrations of mercury, arsenic, zinc and other elements that are known to be dangerous to human health. Bunker oil also has high levels of sulfur, the element that is the primary component of acid rain. When it mixes with moisture in the atmosphere, it creates sulfuric acid.
Container ships and oil tankers are critical to the global economy. Most of the stuff on the shelves at Walmart and Amazon fulfillment centers is made overseas and shipped to the developed world in containers carried by enormous ships. The world economy runs on oil, must of which is shipped from where it comes out of the ground to where it is consumed in supertankers. Globalization as we know it would simply not be possible without the ocean-going vessels that shuttle around the globe from port to port.
According to iNewsUK, “It has been estimated that just one of these container ships, the length of around six football pitches, can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. The emissions from 15 of these mega-ships match those from all the cars in the world. And if the shipping industry were a country, it would be ranked between Germany and Japan as the sixth-largest contributor to global CO2 emissions.”
There are thousands upon thousands of ships plying the oceans, spewing a deadly cocktail of pollution in their wake. A study published in the journal Nature earlier this year estimates pollution from ships causes 400,000 premature deaths each year and is responsible for 14,000,000 cases of childhood asthma.
Responsible companies like Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, and organizations like the International Council on Clean Transportation have been pushing for years to clean up the shipping industry’s pollution problem. The International Maritime Organization has gotten the major shipping companies to agree to a plan that would dramatically reduce emissions from cargo ships and tankers. The central component of the plan is to reduce the permitted amount of sulfur in the fuel they use from 3.5% to 0.5%.
Of course, there is one problem. Low sulfur fuel costs $300 to $500 a ton more than the bunker oil those ships use now. Since the ships consume millions of tons of fuel every year, the cost of complying with the new standard could raise the cost of shipping dramatically.
But there is a loophole built into the IMO’s plan. Instead of using low sulfur fuel, ships can install scrubbers that remove pollutants from the exhaust stream (the technology is similar to what is used to remove pollutants from the smokestacks of coal powered generating plants). The IMO plan allows shipping companies to clean those scrubbers at sea using open loop systems. Open loop means the junk collected by the scrubbers just gets pumped overboard into the ocean.
The open loop systems can cost up to $4 million per vessel to install. But that added expense is far less than the increased cost of low sulfur fuel. Ned Molloy, an independent shipping analyst, tells The Guardian the open loop systems are little more than an “environmental dodge” — a way to put a happy face on a serious issue without really doing anything substantive about it.
“This is sulfurous waste going into the sea,” Malloy says. “It would be illegal to just dump this anywhere on land anywhere in the EU, except in specialist facilities. There is growing concern, particularly in EU countries, about whether open loop scrubbers should be allowed.” It’s hard to see how keeping pollution from ships out of the atmosphere by putting it into the oceans instead is much of an improvement, but that’s what happens when profits are allowed to rule sustainability — or common sense.
Of course, countries could simply ban ships with open loop scrubbers from their ports or forbid the sale of high sulfur fuel to shipping companies. But that might raise the price of consumer goods and promote a backlash from retail customers. Heaven forfend that people should actually have to sacrifice in order to keep the Earth from dying. ‘Tis a conundrum and one that would require a complete rethinking of the capitalist system to solve.