Unchecked oil and chemical spills and discharges, underwater noise, sewage and plastic pollution, as well as port expansion are resulting in poor air quality, marine and coastal degradation, the study finds
According to a new report, global shipping continues to cause significant harm to the climate, the ocean and human health. The study, commissioned by Seas At Risk and entitled “The State of Shipping & Oceans”, highlighted the failure of all previous attempts to rein in the harmful impact of shipping, including the effect on climate and the huge gap that exists between action to-date and the reductions demanded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and latest science.
The report has been issued on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the most important piece of international law designed to tackle the environmental impact of international shipping.
The report found that while the UN has made good progress reducing the number of catastrophic oil tanker disasters, the report found that overall, the total volume of oil spilled, and other environmental burdens placed upon our oceans by global shipping and trade has grown since then, and governments have failed to enforce the law to stop this.
Poor ocean health
Insufficient, poorly enforced or non-existent regulations have allowed shipping to undermine ocean health, the report said. This includes oil and chemical spills and discharges, underwater noise, sewage and plastic pollution, as well as port expansion resulting in poor air quality, and marine and coastal degradation. Many of these environmental impacts affect the ocean’s ability to sequester CO2, with potentially large climate consequences, warned the report.
The report emphasised that ships are the main vector for the transfer of invasive aquatic species around the world, destroying local ecosystems and their dependent economies. Additionally, paints containing biocides that are routinely used to stop marine organisms sticking to ships’ hulls are toxic to marine life.
Ship strikes are a leading cause of death for marine mammals, driving some whale species close to extinction and ship-source underwater noise has doubled in ten years, impacting sound-sensitive whales and dolphins, the report added.
Effect on human health
Shipping continues to wreak havoc on the health and well-being of port communities, especially in developing countries. The report said that toxic pollutants from fossil-fuelled ships cause approximately 2,50,000 premature deaths and more than six million cases of childhood asthma worldwide every year, with workers breaking ships on South Asian beaches suffering serious human rights violations.
The growth of the industry, with ever larger vessels, has knock-on effects for the coast, with port expansion plans focussing the toxic and damaging effects of shipping in often vulnerable coastal areas. In the Arctic, where warming is happening four times faster than the rest of the globe, the shipping industry is treating melting ice as an opportunity to open new routes, placing the delicate environment and livelihoods of the resident indigenous communities at an even greater risk.
The poor design of regulations to reduce sulphur pollution from ships has resulted in an air pollution problem being turned into a water pollution problem, with ships legally dumping 10 billion tonnes of contaminated wastewater directly into the ocean each year. Meanwhile, the report said, ship fuel is still 100-500 times more polluting than road diesel, causing large-scale public health damage in port and coastal communities.
“We are facing environmental extremes as we continue to overshoot planetary boundaries. Shipping not only plays a direct role in climate, ocean, and biodiversity harm but also props up a system of global trade, which is causing ecosystem breakdown. We need transformative change across the board. Shipping is no exception,” said Lucy Gilliam, senior shipping policy officer, Seas At Risk. “We cannot solve the climate crisis without also solving the biodiversity and ocean crises.”