Study: Cleaner Ship Fuels to Benefit Health, but Affect Climate


Although cleaner marine shipping fuels will result in significant health benefits on a global scale, more stringent standards beyond 2020 may be needed, according to a study by University of Delaware.

Marine shipping fuels will get a whole lot cleaner in 2020 when a regulation by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires fuels to contain 80-86 percent less sulphur.

Ship air pollution effects are greatest in areas where heavily travelled ship routes exist in, and next to, densely populated communities. Some key regions include China, Singapore, Panama, Brazil and coastlines of Asia, Africa and South America.

“Essentially, we document how much health benefit to expect from the 2020 adoption of cleaner ship fuels,” said James Corbett, professor of marine science and policy in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, and the paper’s corresponding author.

The change to cleaner ship fuels will reduce the ship-related childhood asthma cases by half. Additionally, shipping pollution is estimated to contribute to 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease annually. This is about 7-8 percent of the global health burden caused by air pollution.

Reducing ship sulphur emissions cuts these other global health related impacts, too, avoiding about one-third of the annual cardiovascular disease and lung cancer deaths from shipping air pollution.

“Our results show that these regulations are beneficial, but also that more air pollution health benefits remain possible with less-polluting ships,” said James Winebrake, professor and dean at RIT, an authority on the environmental impacts of transportation, including health risk assessments.

The new IMO rule will decrease the allowable amount of sulphur in fuel oil from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent, a reduction from 35,000 parts per million (ppm) to 5,000 ppm.

Sulphur dioxide emissions from ships create small particles. These sulphur containing particles reflect sunlight and help form brighter clouds, creating a global effect that temporarily diminishes the warming effects of carbon dioxide.

So, what happens when ships emit less sulphur and warming from greenhouse gases is no longer offset?

“The use of cleaner ship fuels will increase the rate of global warming by about 3 percent,” said FMI senior scientist Mikhail Sofiev, who led the climate related research, adding that this means “more attention may be needed to reduce greenhouse gases across all sectors of the global economy.”

At the same time, shipping activity is expected to increase with global trade and continue to produce harmful air emissions and greenhouse gases. Despite the upcoming reductions, low-sulphur marine fuels will still account for approximately 250,000 deaths and 6.4 million childhood asthma cases annually, so more stringent standards beyond 2020 may be needed to provide additional health benefits.

Video Courtesy: Youtube/Michael Graw

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