Jun 252009

From Bill Redmond

Attempts by Greenpeace activists to disrupt the docking of a coal ship at Kingsnorth power station in Kent, England on June 22 may have risked their own lives but they may also have unwittingly exposed a hazard that all seafarers face — exposure to ships’ toxic emissions.

The Greenpeace attempt, involving nine activists boarding the ship from inflatables, was a protest at energy giant Eon’s plans to build a new coal-fired power station alongside the existing dual fuel station (coal and oil). For its part Eon says that the proposed power station would be 20% more efficient but the regulations would force Eon to install equipment to capture and store carbon dioxide (CCS) on only a quarter of the proposed plant.

Dealing with hugely complex issues like climate change, however, on which there is still much uncertainty, could have negative reactions caused, in part, by lack of cogent research and in this it seems that the green movement’s greatest triumph — the abolition of ozone destroying CFC gases — has been a colossal own goal.

When CFCs, used mainly in refrigeration and air conditioning, were found to destroy the ozone layer they were banned under the 1987 Montreal protocol. Their replacement by HFCs (hydroflourocarbons), however, can now be shown to be contributing seriously to green house gases. A ton of HFC-23, for example, has the same global warming potential as 14,800 tons of carbon dioxide. By 2050 demand for HFCs will likely increase by 800% without legislative changes.

Fortunately, there are viable alternatives available that do much less damage but what, if any, are the alternatives to make seafarers’ lives healthier and, for that matter, the estimated 39,000 Europeans who die prematurely each year from ships’ toxic emissions?

Only recently have scientists been able to calculate the specific impact of ships’ toxic emissions because their known carcinogenic pollutants, like particulates and compounds of sulphur and oxygen, are also emitted by factories, motor vehicles and power plants.

The findings of the latest European research are disturbing. One European Commission study suggests that shipping pollutants are cutting several months off the lifespan of every European. Its study lead author, Janusz Cofalu, of the Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, said that the growth in international trade and cargo ships, many of which originate in China, would make that far worse. Cofalu predicted that by 2020 Britain’s west coast would be so badly affected by shipping pollution that average life expectancy for people living in or near coastal towns would be cut by 20 to 30 months.

The current situation has been allowed to develop because shipping’s international nature excludes it from most national laws controlling pollution. Thus, 289 million tons of fuel burnt by the world’s cargo ships each year can be sourced from the cheapest and most contaminated sources. These may contain 2,000 times the levels of sulphur allowed in diesel fuels sold for cars, plus many heavy metals and other contaminants. Marine engines worsen the problems because they run at high temperatures and pressures, just right for containing tiny, lethal particles of soot. This partly explains why very large engines in some ships can spew out the same levels of toxins as 50 million cars in a year and spread them for hundreds of miles on winds.

Fortunately, the European Union is planning Europe’s first marine low emission zones, designed to limit pollution from the thousands of giant cargo sips passing along its coasts. It is to be hoped that such zones will be extended to the rest of the world to that seamen everywhere can feel less exposed and part of the estimated 500,000 premature deaths worldwide caused by ships’ toxic emissions.

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