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Today’s Wall Street Journal devotes a good part of its front page to the growing problem of air pollution produced by cargo ships, which are used to transport 90 percent of the world’s goods. The tonnage of goods sent by cargo ships has tripled since 1970, […]

shippingcontainers2.jpg Today’s Wall Street Journal devotes a good part of its front page to the growing problem of air pollution produced by cargo ships, which are used to transport 90 percent of the world’s goods. The tonnage of goods sent by cargo ships has tripled since 1970, according to the Journal, and in 2005, pollution from shipping produced an estimated 27 percent of the world’s smog-causing emissions. Not only are the numbers staggering, but the solution is going to be very complicated.

We wrote about the opportunities for eco-shipping containers a few months ago. The source of most cargo ships’ pollution is their source of power — residual fuel oil, a.k.a. bunker fuel, which is about as dirty as they come. Bunker fuel is the “tar-like sludge” that remains after petroleum is refined. The heavy metal-laden goo is collected from the bottom of distillation towers that process crude, making it cheap for shippers — less than two-thirds the rate of marine-gas oil, according to the WSJ — and a boon for refiners, who can sell of their excess waste.

While this exchange works out nicely for those two parties, the losers in the deal are the rest of us. Environmental Science & Technology (the journal of the American Chemical Society), published a study this month that estimated air pollution from ships is causing 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung-cancer-related deaths a year, chiefly along trade routes.

What’s the answer? The international nature of the industry makes regulation difficult. Imposing restrictions on fuel emissions in one zone could just prompt shippers to shift routes to another. Or, worse, they could switch between the dirty fuel and its cleaner cousin at sea, a dangerous process that could cause engines to stall and ships to drift helplessly into obstacles.

But the (admittedly biased) International Bunker Industry Association is quick to point out that introducing regulations to switch all ships over to distilled fuel from bunker fuel would require refineries to produce an extra 12 million barrels of oil every day, which is more than Saudi Arabia cranks out. Hmmm. Well, then how about just regulating the ships’ speed? An executive for one Hong Kong-based shipper told the Journal this would merely result in adding more vessels to the fleet to keep up with customer demand.

There are a few rays of (green) light shining through all this bad news. An Oslo-based group has designed a concept ship that would harness the sun, waves and wind to produce zero emissions, and Germany’s SkySails claims that the use of large parasails can reduce fuel costs by 35 percent. And let’s not forget those who are focused on reducing the environmental impact of the rest of the ship, such as the makers of the bamboo-lined containers we reported on earlier this year. Attacking this issue from every angle will not only improve our planet, it will produce tremendous opportunities for enterprising greentechies on land and sea.

  1. Hmmmm, maybe we could just reduce the amount of sh, er, stuff that we consume. Would love to see break downs of that 90% of shipped goods and start to figure out just what we could do without, as well as what we could just spend a few cents more for the same stuff built/made closer to home. Seems to me people don’t think about things in these terms. We are all up in arms (and we should be) about the gunk these ships are putting out so we can get the “stuff” at Wal-Mart for 40 cents cheaper than the local shop where it was produced and trucked in from a place a few hundred miles away.

    I know this comment is idealistic in certain ways, but the bottom line is that if I don’t need those new socks from China (or wherever), or I am willing to save a few pounds of CO2 and spend a buck more for the same (or better) quality socks, I need to know that is an option, and why it should seriously be considered. I have nothing against Wal-Mart. I shop there a lot. I buy socks from them (though this last batch are really cheap and disappointing to me!)

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  2. Now that the U.S. economy is so dismall that we fly or die with the rate of consumer spending , there will be no end in sight for the flood of imported goods coming to a big box store near you. Railroads are on an all time hiring and expansion binge and the use of bigger and faster ships is just getting started. With that in mind , I think it may be a good move for freight companies to push their manufacturing customers to use less packaging material . At the same time , it would be equally as wise for the shippers to start using aluminum containers , instead of the steel containers they now use…they’re heavy. This would reduce weight , which would reduce fuel consumption , and that would mean a cheaper fuel bill for freight company owners. These type of ideas are more likely to be adopted in the shipping industry , since they love them some money…keeping it , not spending it.

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  3. [...] measure up to 640 square meters, are not cheap, but compared with the rising cost of fuel and the added stigma of being known as polluters, the shipping industry may not see the kites as so much hot air. As a [...]

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