Freight shipping: A hidden and growing source of pollution

Jason Mathers

Finally! There’s someone out there who is as excited about shipping as I am.

Recently,  Rose George, a British journalist and author, released what I like to think of as the perfect read. Her book,  Ninety Percent of Everything, examines the overlooked world of freight shipping, which Ms. George calls “the foundation of our civilization.”

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the TV’s we watch get to us from wherever they were manufactured or raised. I, however, do. And so does Ms. George. 

The book looks at the world of freight as a grand and sometimes perilous adventure, but also as a global polluter. Yes, the shipping industry enables all of us to enjoy a higher standard of living because it fosters international trade. But it also has a significant environmental footprint.

Our growing demand for products at competitive prices has put a ton of pressure on the freight industry. This demand has driven up global freight emissions to nearly three billion metric tons of heat-trapping carbon emissions each year. That’s equal to over 700 coal plants.

Looking at just the shipping industry, Ms. George says. If it were a country, it would rank sixth in the world for carbon pollution. This despite the fact that shipping is the most carbon-efficient way to move products long distances.

The shipping industry often points to this fact, but tends to ignore the direct impact of freighters on human health. These vessels run on low grade “residual fuel” or “bunker fuel.” This fuel contains sulfur levels 1,800 times greater than United States law allows for other diesel engines. These ships are also a significant source of smog-forming oxides of nitrogen.

Dr. Elena Craft, a health scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, has noted that “the dangerous air pollution from these floating smokestacks is a threat to tens of millions of Americans who live and work along our coastlines.”

It is because of this impact that the U.S. established an Emission Control Area within 200 nautical miles of our coastlines.

Our demand for global goods isn’t going to diminish, so we need to find ways to address the freight industry’s environmental impact.  At EDF, we’re actively supporting the development and enforcement of the emission control areas, piloting innovative programs to clean-up our nation’s ports, and working with some of the largest companies relying on freight to find ways to reduce their emissions. 

Meanwhile, I’m eager to read Rose George’s new book, which I’ve ordered. And, it’s the freight system, of course, that will deliver it to my doorstep.

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