Being held to account for air pollution
Air pollution has become a hot topic and a major public health concern with shipping increasingly at the heart of the debate, writes Chloé Farand.
While air pollution from transport and heavy industry has long been denounced, illegal levels of pollution caused by shipping have recently come under the spotlight.
In February, The Independent reported that a report by the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI) for the UK Government concluded shipping was a far greater source of pollution in Britain that previously estimated — with about 10% of the country’s nitrogen emissions coming from ships.
Global estimates also suggest international shipping produces close to 3% of human greenhouse gas emissions — nearly twice as much as aviation. According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)’s own estimates, emissions from shipping could increase up to 250% and make up 17% of global emissions by 2050, if the industry remains unregulated.
Public opinion has long overlooked the role of port cities as air pollution hubs. But in the light of recent studies, ports now urgently need to be involved in the conversation to prevent people from breathing toxic air.
In the UK, where the government has been taken to court three times over illegal levels of air pollution, the port city of Southampton is one of the country’s most polluted places.
Yet, in March last year, a BBC investigation revealed Southampton docks had no way of monitoring its air pollution, despite being named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016 as one of 44 places in the UK breaching safety limits.
Since then, air monitors have been installed throughout the port and collecting data has become a key role for the port’s environment manager, Sue Simmonite.
Monitoring and analysing air quality information will help the port map its pollution hotspots and put in place measures to improve them.
“We are gathering lots of data and we have a system of alarms in case of pollution peaks. The more data we collect, the wiser we will be on what to do,” she says.
According to the City Council, the Port of Southampton contributes about 7% to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. To tackle the issue, port officials are collaborating with the City Council and the University to help them analyse the data and work out energy efficiency plans.
Initiatives such as increasing the proportion of freightsent by rail, extending the length of trains to fit more containers and using electric vehicles at each terminal are already being worked out across the Associated British Port (ABP) group, which includes the Port of Southampton.
A lucrative commercial port and the biggest cruise port in Britain, the Port of Southampton is a major employer in the city and for Ms Simmonite, tackling air pollution is also about protecting the health of port employees.
“People forget that we all work here and that we have a vested interest in making air quality at the port as good as it can be,” she says.
Across the UK, air pollution is believed to be responsible for 40,000 early deaths per year and workers in the shipping industry are bound to be affected too.
In April, the IMO will hold an important meeting when it is due to decide whether to impose emissions limits on the shipping industry,or continue with a voluntary scheme.
But while the industry’s high-level meeting will attract much attention, Ms Simmonite agrees that ports around the world should facilitate discussions around environmental challenges and put pressure on all actors to take the ambitious decisions that will enable change.
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