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Cruise industry ‘failing’ environment and public health, report claims

The authors of a critical report that analyses the impact of cruise ships on public health and the environment have launched a withering attack on the industry and the organisation that regulates it.

Researchers at Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU), the German NGO behind the report, claim European cruise ships are belching out 3,500 times more sulphur dioxide than land-based vehicles, thus contributing to a range of issues including climate change, air pollution and lung problems.

“The shipping sector is lagging far behind what’s going on on land [in terms of regulating emissions],” said Daniel Rieger, a researcher at NABU. “Air pollution from ships is damaging global climate and human health.”

Rieger claims the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which regulates shipping, could be doing more to tackle pollution caused by the cruise industry.

In most countries, he says, the maximum permitted sulphur emissions for land-based vehicles is capped at 10 parts per million (0.001 per cent); however, thanks to the IMO, the cruise industry has a more lenient limit of 3.5 per cent, which allows operators to use “cheap and dirty” heavy fuel oil.

“[The IMO] works so slow that we have to wait at least 10 or 20 years more until effective regulation will be in place,” said Rieger.

That’s not strictly true: last month the IMO announced new legislation that will slash sulphur emissions for vessels from 3.5 per cent to 0.5 per cent, though it won’t come into effect until 2020.

“Ships are subject to quite clear, quite stringent requirements with regards to their emissions and last month these were tightened still further,” said Lee Adamson, a spokesperson for the IMO.

“I have seen various comparisons done with different transport modes and what sometimes gets overlooked is that a ship is a very big unit and that it performs a very large amount of what you might call transport work.”

NABU believes the new IMO regulation does not go far enough and that cruise lines fall back on scrubbing technology to “clean” exhaust gasses rather than replace heavy fuel oil.

“What a scrubber does, technically, is spray some water on the exhaust,” explained Rieger. “The fallout is then washed into the open sea. Scrubbers just shift the problem from the air to the ocean, which, from an environmental perspective, is not the proper solution.”

NABU claims that while a handful of European cruise lines are going beyond what is legally required of them, the majority are not.

“Some are starting to take action voluntarily,” said Rieger, who helped compile a ranking system for European cruise ships. “We wanted to highlight the good guys.”

NABU rated European cruise vessels out of four, awarding a point for every measure the cruise line was taking to mitigate the ship’s impact on the environmental.

The vessels were assessed on the type of fuel they use, whether they are fitted with catalysts and particulate filters and whether they use alternative power sources when in ports. Half a point was awarded for ships that switched to cleaner fuels in Arctic waters.

The AIDAprima, flagship of AIDA Cruises, came out on top with a score of three. “It’s going beyond what is required legally,” said Rieger.

However, of the 55 European vessels assessed by NABU, 44 scored zero, including three ships operated by Royal Caribbean International.

Responding to the report, the cruise line’s managing director for UK and Ireland, Stuart Leven, told Telegraph Travel: “Royal Caribbean’s commitment to best environmental practices is fundamental to how we do business.

“We meet or exceed all environmental laws and regulations and our continuous improvement in performance is evidence of our seriousness in this area.”

Last month Royal Caribbean announced a new class of ship that will be powered by liquefied natural gas and employ fuel cell technology, which the company claims will usher in a new era of environmentally friendly cruising.

“These ships are set to be delivered in 2022 and 2024 and their green technologies will help our steady progress on increased energy efficiency and reduced emissions that will see us continue to raise the bar on environmental stewardship now and in years to come,” said Leven.

TUI Group told Telegraph Travel that it was working to improve the environmental friendliness of its cruise ships.

“These efforts include substantial investments in technology to minimize emissions for every new ship of our fleet,” said a spokesperson.

“The NABU ranking focuses on a very narrow set of technical solutions for reducing emissions. However, there are more ways to improve the environmental impact of cruise ships. The ranking does not reflect these manifold efforts.”

NABU admits its ranking system is simplistic, but maintains that it gives holidaymakers an opportunity to make informed decisions about what cruise ships they should take.

“If you would like to go on a cruise vacation and you’re interested in the environment and health you should have the opportunity to choose an operator that is taking care of this,” said Rieger.

Many ways to cut ship NOx emissions

Establishing NOx Emission Control Areas would significantly reduce ship NOx emissions by 2040 – introducing economic instruments could cut emissions faster and further.

A new study has given projections of ship NOx emissions in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel up to 2040, and estimated the potential of various measures to reduce NOx emissions from international shipping.

Ships emit significant amounts of air pollution, including sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and small particles (PM2.5), causing serious damage to health and the environment. As a result of both EU and global regulations, sulphur emissions from ships are expected to gradually come down, but there is currently no regulation that will ensure any significant cuts in their NOx emissions.

The only existing regulation of NOx from international shipping is in Annex VI of the MARPOL Convention under the International Maritime Organization (IMO). However, the NOx emission standards in this regulation solely apply to newly constructed ship engines, and the currently (since 2012) applicable Tier II standard accomplishes just a modest 15 to 20 per cent emission reduction compared to an unabated Tier I engine.

There is however a stricter Tier III standard that requires emission reductions of about 80 per cent compared to a Tier I engine, but this applies only to newly built ships in designated NOx Emission Control Areas (NECA) which currently only exist in North America.

While the Tier II standard can be achieved by internal engine modifications that adjust combustion parameters, bigger changes are needed to reach the Tier III standard.

There are several different abatement options for reducing emissions of NOx from marine engines, including:

  • Exhaust gas after-treatment, where the main option is selective catalytic reduction (SCR).
  • Combustion modification using techniques such as exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) or methods where water is introduced in the engine.
  • Switching from marine fuel oils to, for example, liquefied natural gas (LNG) or methanol.
  • Reduced fuel consumption, e.g. through slow steaming.

According to the study, SCR, EGR and using LNG as fuel can all reduce NOx emissions to Tier III levels. Of these, SCR has the longest history of marine applications, LNG is increasingly being used as a marine fuel, and while EGR is said by engine manufacturers to live up to the standard, so far there is limited data from practical applications.

In terms of costs, EGR and the SCR have comparable costs per kg of NOx reduced, while the costs for LNG depend largely on whether an existing ship is rebuilt or the LNG system is installed on a new ship – the latter being considerably less costly than the former. Fluctuations in the LNG price also affect the potential return on investment.

In order to analyse the potential for reducing NOx emissions from shipping, the study made new projections of emissions up to 2040 in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel. Regarding activity levels, ship traffic was assumed to increase by 1.5 per cent per year for all ship types except container ships, where the increase was set at 3.5 per cent per year. The average lifetimes of ships were assumed to stay the same up to 2040, i.e. 25 to 28 years.

Expected improvements in transport efficiency will result in lower fuel consumption for comparable volumes of freight transport, and in this study efficiency is assumed to increase between 1.3 and 2.25 per cent per year for the different ship types. The authors point out that these values are quite optimistic and result in fuel consumption that is stable over time despite an increase in ship traffic.

Projections were given for two scenarios – one business-as-usual (BAU), i.e. with no NOx Emission Control Area (NECA), and another with a NECA in place from 2021.

Current (2015) emissions were estimated to amount to 830,000 tonnes of NOx. Under the BAU scenario, emissions in 2040 are expected to come down by about 14 per cent, to 715,000 tonnes. Assuming that a NECA is in place from 2021, emissions in 2040 would instead be reduced by nearly two-thirds, to 306,000 tonnes.

In addition to estimating the impact of a NECA, the study evaluated several policy instruments that could be implemented in addition or as an alternative to the NECA. These policy instruments would address NOx emissions from the entire fleet, not only from newly built ships.

Three policy instruments were shortlisted as the most promising for use in addition or as an alternative to a NECA:

The first option is a levy that ships have to pay for NOx emissions in the area. The revenue from the levy would be used to fund the uptake of NOx abatement measures in the sector.

The second option requires ships to reduce their speed by 15 per cent under the baseline speed when sailing in the area. As an alternative compliance option, the ships that prefer to stick to their baseline speed can pay a levy, depending on their NOx emissions in the area. The income from this levy would be used to fund NOx abatement measures in the sector.

The third option is a stand-alone levy that ships have to pay for their NOx emissions in the area. The revenue from this instrument is assumed to go to the member states and not to be earmarked.

These three instruments were evaluated regarding their NOx reduction potential and the associated costs for the sector if the levy rate was either set at €1, €2 or €3 per kg NOx. It was found that two of the three instruments were better at meeting the two criteria, firstly a levy & fund and secondly regulated slow steaming combined with a levy & fund.

Introducing a levy & fund instrument could quickly and significantly reduce ship NOx emissions. In 2025 emissions could be cut by two-thirds (67%) in the case of no NECA and by 61 per cent with a NECA in place (see table). In 2040, reductions would amount to about 70 per cent in the absence of a NECA, and about 30 per cent if a NECA is established. This is roughly twice the reduction achieved with regulated slow steaming combined with a levy & fund if the baseline speed is reduced by 15 per cent. However, costs for the sector of a levy & fund are also roughly twice the costs of regulated slow steaming combined with a levy & fund.

Table: NOx emissions from international shipping in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel 2005–2040 (thousand tonnes).


Expressed in tonnes, this means that even with a NECA in place, the use of economic instruments could cut annual NOx emissions by about 400,000 tonnes on average throughout the 2020s. For comparison, this is more than the total land-based NOx emissions of Sweden, Denmark and Finland combined, which in 2014 amounted to 385,000 tonnes.

Because the Tier III NECA standard applies only to newly built ships and ships have a very long lifetime, the introduction of economic instruments such as a levy & fund would provide a very useful complement to the NECA, by also ensuring significant emission cuts in the short term. Assume, for example, that a levy & fund is adopted and put into practice in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea in 2021, this would achieve an accumulated additional emission reduction over the ten years up to 2030 amounting to nearly four million tonnes of NOx.

Christer Ågren

The study “NOx controls for shipping in EU seas” (June 2016) was commissioned by Transport & Environment and prepared jointly by the consultants IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and CE Delft.

Figure: NOx emissions from international shipping in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel 2005–2040 under a) business-as-usual (BAU); b) a NOx emission control area (NECA), and; c) a NOx levy and fund system.

Figure: NOx emissions from international shipping in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel 2005–2040 under a) business-as-usual (BAU); b) a NOx emission control area (NECA), and; c) a NOx levy and fund system.

Fuelling a low-emission target

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Air pollution from ships

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Pollutionwatch: Big ships, bigger stink

The Marco Polo, one of the world’s largest vessels, docks at a container terminal in Hamburg. Photograph: Patrick Lux/Getty Images

The Marco Polo, one of the world’s largest vessels, docks at a container terminal in Hamburg. Photograph: Patrick Lux/Getty Images

Nowadays, Christmas arrives by ship not sleigh. The labels of our new Christmas jumpers, novelty socks, toys and mobile phones reveal the global trade in manufactured goods and the huge distances they travel.

Shipping is more energy efficient than road or air transport, but a lack of controls on ship exhausts and the poor quality of marine fuel mean 15% of global nitrogen oxides and 8% of sulphur gaseous pollution come from ocean-going ships.

This matters because 80% of shipping is within 400km of land, and major sea corridors and ports are large pollution sources. In Hong Kong, the world’s fourth largest port, daily changes in ship pollution have been linked to heart attack frequency. Ship pollution can also be found in smaller port cities such as Cork, Gothenburg and Brisbane.

Marine fuel is mainly residues from refining road and aviation fuel, and therefore contains most of the impurities. Vanadium emitted from ship funnels can be found in the air throughout Europe – in Paris and London, for example. But the greatest impact of shipping pollution in Europe is felt in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Much of waters around the US and Europe are now pollution control zones for ships, requiring them to burn better quality fuel. This does help. Reduced sulphur in fuel from 2006 led to cleaner air in Dover and Rotterdam.

However, growth in shipping and increasingly stringent controls on land-based pollution sources mean ship pollution is set to grow as a proportion of our pollution exposure

AirClim: Shipping air pollution costs €60 billion per year

From Christer Ågren of Air Pollution & Climate Secretariat:

Total health-related costs in Europe caused by air pollutant emissions from international shipping are expected to increase from €58 billion to €64 billion between 2000 and 2020.

The total health-related costs of air pollution in Europe are calculated to have been more than €800 billion per year at the pollution levels of year 2000. This figure is estimated to decrease to €537 billion in 2020, provided that EU countries reduce their emissions from land-based sources in line with what is needed to achieve the environmental targets of the EU’s 2005 Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution, and provided that the sulphur emission standards for international shipping are complied with.

Air pollution is estimated to have been responsible for around 680,000 premature deaths in the whole of Europe in the year 2000, a figure that is expected to come down to approximately 450,000 in 2020.

Comparing the health impacts from shipping with those from land-based sources shows that in the year 2000 emissions from international shipping were responsible for an estimated seven per cent of the total health damage from air pollution in Europe, and that its share will increase to twelve per cent by 2020.

( by-sa)

The number of annual premature deaths in Europe linked to air pollution from international shipping is estimated to increase from 49,500 to 53,400 between 2000 and 2020.

These figures come from a Danish study1 using the EVA (Economic Value of Air pollution) computer model. The research project aims to map the true costs of damage caused by air pollutant emissions from various sectors. Different scenarios assessing the human health impacts and associated external costs from different emission sectors have been investigated for the years 2000, 2007, 2011 and 2020 (see Table).

Table: Estimated total number of annual premature deaths in Europe caused by different emission sources

2000 2007 2011 2020
All sources 681,100 575,500 572,600 450,000
International shipping 49,500 48,300 46,000 53,400
Int. shipping in the North Sea and Baltic Sea 20,400 16,200 14,100 13,200

Air pollutant emissions from ships operating in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea were responsible for annual health damage in Europe valued at €22 billion at the emission levels of year 2000. By 2020, this figure is expected to come down to €14.1 billion, as a result of implementation of the stricter ship fuel sulphur standards agreed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2008 (see Box).

International ship emission regulations

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), under ANNEX VI of MARPOL 73/78 (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships), has adopted controls on sulphur in marine fuels.

The global fuel sulphur limit is currently 3.50% and will be lowered to 0.50% by 2020 (or possibly 2025, subject to a review in 2018). In specially designated sulphur emission control areas (SECAs), the current limit is set at 1.00% sulphur. It will be tightened to 0.10% by 2015.

Through the revision of the EU’s sulphur-in-fuels directive (2012/33/EU), which was finalised last year, these sulphur standards are part of binding EU legislation.

In Europe there are currently only two existing SECAs: the Baltic Sea and the North Sea (including the English Channel). Most of the coastal waters – within 200 nautical miles of the coast – of the USA and Canada have been designated as “combined” ECAs for both SO2 and NOx.

It should be noted that exhaust gas cleaning systems (e.g. scrubbers) that achieve equivalent sulphur emission reductions may be used as an alternative to low-sulphur fuels to fulfil the sulphur requirements.

However, since these stricter fuel standards apply only in designated Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA), and the Baltic Sea and the North Sea so far are the only such areas in Europe, and ship traffic overall is expected to continue to increase, the total health-related costs in Europe of international ship traffic are expected to increase from €58.4 billion in the year 2000 to €64.1 billion in 2020.

In the intermediate years (2007 and 2011), smaller decreases in the health damage from ship pollution occurred as a result of stricter sulphur standards in the SECA area. The subsequent increase up to 2020 results from an overall projected increase in ship traffic worldwide.

It is noted by the authors that a similar study performed by the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that by 2020 air pollution from shipping would still cause 21,000 annual premature deaths within the USA, with related health costs amounting to USD47–110 billion.

Specifically for Denmark, it is estimated that the total annual health-related air pollution damage amounted to €4.5 billion in year 2000. By 2020, this figure is expected to come down to €2.5 billion.

Air pollutant emissions from international shipping in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea are responsible for health damage in Denmark valued at more than €620 million per year (year 2000), decreasing to €360 million in 2020. The authors conclude that the SECA regulation that limits the sulphur content in ship fuel to a maximum of 0.1 per cent as from 2015, is expected to significantly reduce the external costs, and that “a similar regulation of international ship traffic in the whole world would have a significant positive effect on human health.”

It is however noted that the health impacts from ship emissions in the SECAs will remain significant after 2015. The reason being that the emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from ship traffic are not regulated by the SECA standard, and in the scenario used, NOx emissions from international shipping are therefore expected to continue to increase more or less in line with the projected increase in shipping activities.

1 Assessment of past, present and future health-cost externalities of air pollution in Europe and the contribution from international ship traffic using the EVA model system (March 2013). By J. Brandt et al. Published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion 13, 6 March 2013.

3 Oct 2013

Shipping emissions associated with increased cardiovascular hospitalizations

•Nickel and vanadium in PM10 are indices of shipping air pollution.
•Nickel and vanadium were associated with elevated cardiovascular hospitalizations.
•Nickel appeared to correspond better than vanadium to cardiovascular health.
•Controlling residual oil emissions is important in port cities.


Previous studies have suggested nickel (Ni) and vanadium (V) as the likely constituents that are partially responsible for health effects associated with particulate matter pollution. The authors aimed to examine the effects of Ni and V in PM10, the indices of shipping emissions, on emergency hospitalizations for cardiovascular diseases (CVD) in Hong Kong. Daily PM10 speciation data across six monitoring stations in Hong Kong during 1998–2007 were collected. Generalized additive Poisson models with single-day lags were used to estimate the excess risks of emergency hospital admissions for CVD associated with Ni and V, after adjusted for major PM10 chemical species and criteria gaseous pollutants. The excess risks for inter-quartile range (IQR) increases of Ni and V on the same day and previous six days (lag0 ∼ lag6) were estimated. Ni in PM10 was associated with a 1.25% (95%CI: 0.81–1.68%) increase of total emergency CVD admissions on the same day, while lag0 V was associated with a 0.95% (95%CI: 0.55–1.35%) elevated CVD admissions. The associations were not sensitive to the further adjustment for co-pollutants. Ni appeared to correspond better than V to cardiovascular health. Controlling shipping emissions from residual oil combustion in the port cities like Hong Kong is particularly important.


Ships urged to use cleaner fuel as 400 die each year

HK Standard

About 400 Hong Kong people a year die unnecessarily from breathing in bunker fuel from ocean-going vessels that come to the city, research by a think-tank has found out.

Mary Ann Benitez

Thursday, September 20, 2012

About 400 Hong Kong people a year die unnecessarily from breathing in bunker fuel from ocean-going vessels that come to the city, research by a think-tank has found out.

The report, titled A Price Worth Paying, took five years to produce and is the first comprehensive study of the impact of emissions from container ships, cruise liners and oil tankers in the Pearl River Delta region, Hong Kong and Macau.

The study, released by Civic Exchange, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Atmospheric Research Center, and the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, has called on the authorities to mandate that ships use cleaner fuels.

The report, financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, showed that sulfur dioxide emitted from ships results in 519 people dying each year in the delta region, and 75 percent of them are Hongkongers.

A total of 93 die in the inner delta region, including Macau and Shenzhen, and 42 in the outer delta region including Jiangmen and Huizhou.

Using government pollution and Hospital Authority data in 2008 and computer simulation, the team found that “shipping is by far the most important source of sulfur dioxide pollution, more than that of vehicular emissions,” Civic Exchange’s head of transport and sustainability research, Simon Ng Ka- wing, said.

Lai Hak-kan of the HKU School of Public Health said the 384 deaths in Hong Kong a year as a result of the pollution by ships is “a very conservative estimate.”

The team also found that 75 to 80 percent of all emissions, both within and beyond Hong Kong waters, came from container vessels, while cruise ships accounted for 10 percent. “If we are going to have bigger terminals to accommodate larger cruise ships, the emission problem will worsen,” Ng said.

Emission hot spots are the container terminals in Kwai Chung, Shekou and Yantian on the mainland, and the main fairways cutting through Hong Kong – the East Lamma Channel, Ma Wan Channel and the Urmston Road waterway going to Shekou.

“Shekou and Yantian are basically our neighbors,” he said.

“If there is a downwind, then a lot of pollutants are blown into Hong Kong.”

Alexis Lau Kai-hon, director of the HKUST Atmospheric Research Center, said: “The take-home message is really that Hong Kong is affected substantially by marine pollution.”

At 15 micrograms per cubic meter, Hongkongers inhale the highest level of the major pollutant, compared with 1-2 micrograms inJiangmen, Guangzhou and Foshan, which are further inland.

“Secondly, the pollution is highest when the ships are at berth,” Lau said.

The authorities should be asking ships to switch to 0.5 percent sulfur when berthed in Hong Kong waters, or mandate a 0.1 percent sulfur limit within local waters, he says.

The long-term goal is to designate local waters as an “emission control area” and require ships within 185 kilometers of Hong Kong to use 0.1 percent sulfur.

This would reduce deaths by 91 percent to 33 a year in the Hong Kong, the research found.

HK suffers most deaths in region from ship pollution

Submitted by admin on Sep 20th 2012, 12:00am

News›Hong Kong


Ada Lee

Sulphur dioxide emissions from vessels cost lives of at least 365 people in city, says think tank, as it calls for stricter rules on fuels

Hong Kong has suffered the most from ship emissions in the Pearl River Delta, with locals accounting for 75 per cent of deaths related to sulphur dioxide released from vessels, a think tank found.

The air quality at Kwai Chung and Tsim Sha Tsui could be worst-hit by ship pollutants, researchers behind a five-year study by Civic Exchange suggest.

The think tank, founded by Christine Loh Kung-wai, now environment undersecretary, urged the city’s administration to be more proactive in tightening restrictions and to seek support from its mainland counterparts.

The city’s popular ship routes were partly to blame, because some vessels passed through Hong Kong waters on the way to twin ports in Shenzhen, the group said in its report.

“With so many ships berthing at the terminal in Kwai Chung, it’s like a small power plant,” said Simon Ng Ka-wing, Civic Exchange’s head of transport and sustainability research.

According to the Civic Exchange report, jointly issued with the University of Science and Technology and the University of Hong Kong, the city saw 385 of the 519 deaths directly related to sulphur dioxide from ship emissions in the region. The number of deaths in the inner Pearl River Delta region was 93, while that in the outer region was 42.

Dr Lai Hak-kan, an HKU research assistant professor who contributed to the report, said the figures were probably an underestimate, as the researchers had not taken long-term health effects of sulphur dioxide into account. The chemical can cause cancer and diseases in heart and blood vessels.

Ng said emissions from ships, mainly containers, were harmful although they accounted for only 18 per cent of sulphur dioxide in the city’s air. As it was released at a lower level, it could reach the residential areas easily.

The think tank suggested the government seek support from the central government and apply to the International Maritime Organisation to set up an emission control area, which would require ships to switch to 0.1 per cent sulphur fuel when they are within 100 nautical miles of Hong Kong. It said such a move could reduce deaths related to sulphur dioxide by 91 per cent.

It also suggested the government make it compulsory that ships switch their fuel to 0.5 per cent sulphur at berth. This suggestion follows the Fair Winds Charter which saw 18 shipping lines agree to do so two years ago. The pact will end in December.

Roberto Giannetta, secretary of the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association, said it would cost a shipping line US$2 million a year to switch from conventional bunker fuel to low-sulphur clean fuel. He said it was uncommon for ships in Hong Kong to use low-sulphur fuel because it was not available in the city.



Ocean Pollution

Environmental impact of shipping

Source URL (retrieved on Sep 20th 2012, 5:27am):

Health risks of shipping pollution have been ‘underestimated’

One giant container ship can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50m cars, study finds

Britain and other European governments have been accused of underestimating the health risks from shipping pollution following research which shows that one giant container ship can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50m cars.

Confidential data from maritime industry insiders based on engine size and the quality of fuel typically used by ships and cars shows that just 15 of the world’s biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760m cars. Low-grade ship bunker fuel (or fuel oil) has up to 2,000 times the sulphur content of diesel fuel used in US and European automobiles.

Pressure is mounting on the UN’s International Maritime Organisation and the EU to tighten laws governing ship emissions following the decision by the US government last week to impose a strict 230-mile buffer zone along the entire US coast, a move that is expected to be followed by Canada.

The setting up of a low emission shipping zone follows US academic research which showed that pollution from the world’s 90,000 cargo ships leads to 60,000 deaths a year and costs up to $330bn per year in health costs from lung and heart diseases. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates the buffer zone, which could be in place by next year, will save more than 8,000 lives a year with new air quality standards cutting sulphur in fuel by 98%, particulate matter by 85% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 80%.

The new study by the Danish government’s environmental agency adds to this picture. It suggests that shipping emissions cost the Danish health service almost £5bn a year, mainly treating cancers and heart problems. A previous study estimated that 1,000 Danish people die prematurely each year because of shipping pollution. No comprehensive research has been carried out on the effects on UK coastal communities, but the number of deaths is expected to be much higher.

Europe, which has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, has dramatically cleaned up sulphur and nitrogen emissions from land-based transport in the past 20 years but has resisted imposing tight laws on the shipping industry, even though the technology exists to remove emissions. Cars driving 15,000km a year emit approximately 101 grammes of sulphur oxide gases (or SOx) in that time. The world’s largest ships’ diesel engines which typically operate for about 280 days a year generate roughly 5,200 tonnes of SOx.

The EU plans only two low-emission marine zones which should come into force in the English channel and Baltic sea after 2015. However, both are less stringent than the proposed US zone, and neither seeks to limit deadly particulate emissions.

Shipping emissions have escalated in the past 15 years as China has emerged as the world’s manufacturing capital. A new breed of intercontinental container ship has been developed which is extremely cost-efficient. However, it uses diesel engines as powerful as land-based power stations but with the lowest quality fuel.

“Ship pollution affects the health of communities in coastal and inland regions around the world, yet pollution from ships remains one of the least regulated parts of our global transportation system,” said James Corbett, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware, one of the authors of the report which helped persuade the US government to act.

Today a spokesman for the UK government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency accepted there were major gaps in the legislation. “Issues of particulate matter remain a concern. They need to be addressed and we look forward to working with the international community,” said environment policy director Jonathan Simpson.

“Europe needs a low emission zone right around its coasts, similar to the US, if we are to meet health and environmental objectives,” said Crister Agrena of the Air Pollution and Climate Secretariat in Gothenburg, one of Europe’s leading air quality organisations.

“It is unacceptable that shipping remains one of the most polluting industries in the world. The UK must take a lead in cleaning up emissions,” said Simon Birkett, spokesman for the Campaign for Clean Air in London. “Other countries are planning radical action to achieve massive health and other savings but the UK is strangely inactive.”

The calculations of ship and car pollution are based on the world’s largest 85,790KW ships’ diesel engines which operate about 280 days a year generating roughly 5,200 tonnes of SOx a year, compared with diesel and petrol cars which drive 15,000km a year and emit approximately 101gm of SO2/SoX a year.

Shipping by numbers
The world’s biggest container ships have 109,000 horsepower engines which weigh 2,300 tons.

Each ship expects to operate 24hrs a day for about 280 days a year

There are 90,000 ocean-going cargo ships

Shipping is responsible for 18-30% of all the world’s nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution and 9% of the global sulphur oxide (SOx) pollution.

One large ship can generate about 5,000 tonnes of sulphur oxide (SOx) pollution in a year

70% of all ship emissions are within 400km of land.

85% of all ship pollution is in the northern hemisphere.

Shipping is responsible for 3.5% to 4% of all climate change emissions

• This article was amended on 25 August 2015 to correct the number of deaths per year attributed to pollution from the world’s 90,000 cargo ships.