How 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Fred Pearce provides a shockingly disingenuous explanation of how 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world:

We’ve all noticed it. The filthy black smoke kicked out by funnels on cross-Channel ferries, cruise liners, container ships, oil tankers and even tugboats.

It looks foul, and leaves a brown haze across ports and shipping lanes. But what hasn’t been clear until now is that it is also a major killer, probably causing thousands of deaths in Britain alone.

As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.

Ships have grown larger over the years, in order to transport good more efficiently. It hardly makes sense to complain about pollution on a per ship basis, when the largest ships presumably pollute less per tonne-nautical mile.

This point seems equally misguided:

But, unlike power stations or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel: the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.

Thanks to decisions taken in London by the body that polices world shipping, this pollution could kill as many as a million more people in the coming decade – even though a simple change in the rules could stop it.

This “bunker fuel” is being burned far out at sea, where it is hardly likely to cause “breathing problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease” in millions of Britons. That’s why it’s legal there and not on land.

And that’s also how 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world — because the “pollution” he’s discussing is just sulphur, which cars don’t emit in meaningful quantities (100 grams per year).

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