Regulating shippings environmental impact

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

11 October 2017


Public awareness of the shipping industry has changed over time and whereas it was once seen as an exciting and romantic undertaking, today it is mainly perceived negatively. And most criticism is directed at shipping’s supposed disregard for the environment.

It is true that ships run on fuels that do produce harmful exhaust emissions but while there may be an element of choice in this, the main reason is a combination of economics and insufficient availability of alternatives.

Today, the burden of regulation on exhausts is getting heavier and while the technology to reduce pollution is being developed, it is not always suited to all ship types or operations.

Compared to shore-based industries, shipping has fewer opportunities to control and contain the inevitable pollution that can occur. A power station on shore can easily accommodate large items of emission control equipment and in the event of a problem it can easily be shut down and its output to the grid made up by others. That is not an option available to a ship at sea.

The problems of controlling ships’ exhaust emissions is compounded by the way the regulation has evolved, tackling first one component of the exhaust, then another and another without the realisation that combustion is a complex chemical process and controls on one gas may influence production of another.

Some would argue that exhaust emissions need to be considered as an inevitable side effect of human economic activity and while there may be some detrimental effect, overall the wealth created by trade and the food and raw materials transported to where they are needed most improves the quality of human life and raises living standards.

Environmental regulation is not all about exhaust emissions and few would argue against controlling deliberate pollution of the environment by hazardous chemicals and substances other than in a dire emergency. On the other hand, disposal of food waste and even sewage is of questionable harm in the deep oceans and viewed dispassionately could even be beneficial providing nutrients for marine life and recycling essential trace elements. Nevertheless, it is regulated and most shipowners do comply with the rules in place.

Developing equipment and technology to control the environmental impact of shipping is spread over a wide range of ships’ activities and understanding the means available to limit the impact is taking up an ever greater amount of an operator’s time and investment.