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Project aims to cut air pollution from ships in the Mediterranean

Air pollution from a cruise ship. Photo: NABU-Hapke-Prell

Air pollution from a cruise ship. Photo: NABU-Hapke-Prell

A project entitled ‘Together against Air Pollution from Ships’ was re­cently launched in Malta aimed at conducting a public awareness campaign regarding air pollution generated by cruise ships with the ultimate goal of establishing a Sulphur Emission Control Area (Seca) in the Mediterranean. Such an emission control area at sea would improve air quality by demanding that all ships operating in the Mediterannean use cleaner fuels.

The project partners comprise Birdlife Malta and several other eNGOs in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Germany. This is the first time that Birdlife Malta is venturing into a new field beyond ornithology.

During the project launch, the findings of an exercise in air pollution measurement carried out by independent air quality expert Axel Friedrich in Valletta and Vittoriosa were announced. These showed high concentrations of ultrafine particles in the ambient air during the time ships were passing through the Grand Harbour. Measurements revealed concentrations 80 times higher than clean air levels expected of areas not exposed to any pollution sources. Ultrafine particles are known to be a major risk to human health as they trigger severe heart and lung disease.

During the project, the eNGOs will regularly exchange information, knowledge and expertise through periodical conferences which will discuss air pollution from ships and will work to raising awareness in Malta and the Mediterranean about air pollution from cruise ships.

Ships are a major contributor to air pollution that threatens the Earth’s climate and environment and people’s health. Ship engines traditionally burn low-quality heavy fuel oil, which contributes considerably to global and local emissions, including soot emissions that are harmful to health, ecosystems and the climate.

In 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified that 95 per cent of Europeans living in urban environments are exposed to levels of air pollution considered dangerous to human health, with about 420,000 premature deaths in the EU because of poor air quality.

Ships are a major contributor to air pollution that threatens the Earth’s climate and environment and people’s health

Such emissions diminish the function of the lungs and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some of them, like black carbon, contribute to climate change. High concentrations of ultrafine particles (UFPs) in cities are responsible for the death of elderly people and people with poor health conditions.

The air pollution measurement exercise in progress in Valletta. Photo: Birdlife MaltaThe air pollution measurement exercise in progress in Valletta. Photo: Birdlife Malta

Some emissions are also harmful to the environment because they cause acid rain and lead to water pollution of soils and coastal areas. Air pollutant emissions are also responsible for a significant loss of productivity in agriculture and forestry, and have a negative impact on biodiversity. Other substances also contribute to climate warming.

Malta’s situation

Cruise shipping movements in Malta have increased by almost 16 per cent during the past six years, with 280 cruise ships in 2010 and 324 in 2015 berthing at Valletta Cruise Port. In 2014, 471,554 cruise ship passengers visited Malta, a 9.3 per cent rise over 2013. Due to Malta’s small size a large part of the island is affected by the previously-mentioned impacts.

Ship-generated pollution contributes to other significant sources of air pollution such as traffic, energy generation and industry – identified as major concerns to the environment and health under the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (Sped). Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 54 per cent between 1990 and 2012, with the transport sector being the principal contributor with 91.1 per cent in 2012, according to the Sped.

Sulphur Emission Control Areas

Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs) or Emission Control Areas (ECAs) are sea areas in which stricter controls were established to minimise airborne emissions from ships. They came into effect in May 2005 and oblige ships to switch to cleaner fuel when going through these areas. These regulations stemmed from concerns about the contribution of the shipping industry to local and global air pollution and environmental problems. By July 2010, revised and more stringent regulations were enforced with significantly tightened emissions limits.

These state that ships passing through these areas have to use fuel with a sulphur content of no more than 1.5 per cent up to July 1, 2010. The limit was set at one per cent after that (July 1, 2010-January 1, 2015) and decreased again to 0.1 per cent after January 1, 2015.

Outside the emission control areas, the limit for sulphur content of fuel oil was 4.5 per cent up to January 1, 2012. The current limit (2012-2020) is 3.5 per cent.

Last month the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which is the United Nations (UN) agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships, announced that the limit has to fall to 0.5 per cent as from January 1, 2020.

ECAs are currently in force in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the North American ECA (including most of the US and Canadian coast), and parts of China.

The ultimate goal of the project is to designate the Mediterranean Sea as such an area.

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