Together against Air Pollution from Ships

BirdLife Malta has just started a partnership with NABU (BirdLife Germany) and several other international partners on a project which shall be delivering an awareness campaign on air pollution generated by cruise ships in the Mediterranean.


NABU and BirdLife Malta officials together with Axel Friedrich, the independent air quality expert who is conducting the study (Photo by BirdLife Malta, cover photos by NABU-Hapke-Prell)

This is a new field BirdLife Malta is venturing into, along with other Mediterranean eNGOs which include BirdLife Greece, and other partners in Italy, Spain and France.

This project was officially launched in Malta on 9th December 2016.

The results of the first exercise in air pollution measurement carried out in Valletta and Birgu through this project showed concentrations of ultrafine particles in the ambient air during the time ships were transiting through the Grand Harbour which are 80 times higher than clean air levels expected of areas not exposed to any pollution sources. You can find the results in more detail here.

Read the launch press release here and download the Project Information Leaflet here.

Background information

Despite the fact that clean air is a basic requirement for human health and well-functioning ecosystems, air quality is globally in a constant decline particularly in urban areas. Cruise ships, berthing in harbours often located in close proximity to dense urban areas contribute massively to air pollution that threatens our climate, our environment and our health. In 2012, the World Health Organization identified that 95% of Europeans living in urban environments are exposed to levels of air pollution considered dangerous to human health and about 420,000 premature deaths are known as a result in the European Union.

Running engines of ships contribute considerably to global and local emissions of sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOₓ) and particulate matter (PM). The latter includes soot emissions (black carbon) which are in particular harmful to health and climate.

NOₓ emissions diminish the function of the lungs and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. NOₓ is also a powerful greenhouse gas causing climate warming due to its contribution in the formation of ozone (O₃). High concentrations of O₃ in cities are responsible for the death of elderly people and people with poor health conditions.

Emissions of sulphur oxides such as sulphur dioxide (SO₂) are harmful for our environment, not least because it causes acid rain which leads to the eutrophication of soils and coastal areas and it damages buildings and structures, particularly those made of limestone. Air pollutant emissions are furthermore responsible for a significant loss of productivity in agriculture and have a negative impact on biodiversity.

The situation in Malta

Cruise shipping movements in Malta have increased by almost 16% over the past six years with 280 cruise ships in 2010 and 324 in 2015 berthing at Valletta Cruise Port. In 2014, cruise ship passengers stood at 471,554 for the year, a rise of 9.3% in comparison to 2013. Because of the small size of Malta, it can be assumed that a major part of the island is affected by the above-mentioned impacts.

This adds on to Malta’s significant air pollution caused by 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% between 1990 and 2012, the transport sector being the principal contributor with 91.1% in 2012 (SPED, 2015).

Project Overview

BirdLife Malta will implement the project “Together Against Air Pollution from Ships” together with various Mediterranean environmental Non-Governmental Organisations including Cittadini per l’Aria (Italy), France Nature Environnement (France), Ecologistas en Acción (Spain), and our BirdLife partners Ornithologiki (Greece) and NABU (Germany). We will work towards national awareness raising and knowledge development on air pollution from ships through activities and information sharing among relevant stakeholders as well as general public. As a long-term goal, we will work together with our partners towards the establishment of a network among Mediterranean countries supporting the establishment of a Sulphur Emission Control Area (SECA) in the Mediterranean Sea.

Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA) are declared areas under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) ANNEX VI of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which regulates air pollution from ocean-going vessels and ships in international waters. Ships are obliged to limit their maximum Sulphur content of fuel oils to 1.0% in comparison to outside SECA where a limit to 3.5% is established. The regulations apply to SO₂ emissions generated from ships including combustion equipment and devices onboard.


To tackle these problems, the project approach is divided into three parts.

National awareness raising, knowledge and information sharing

With the aim to increase the knowledge of the problem of air pollution from (cruise) ships among the general public and identified national stakeholders, we will work towards sharing and publishing information on the topic regularly. Communication activities include distributing project background material, regular updates on the project’s website will make it possible for interested parties to follow all developments.

Compiling national data and taking measurements

Improving the quality of data on the causes and consequences of air pollution from cruise liners provides the groundwork to respond appropriately to the problem. Through air quality monitoring, emission control and research on national health studies, we will work together with relevant stakeholders towards providing the opportunity for suggestions on the development of environmental policies in this field. Existing national baseline data will be researched and collected to be able to measure change throughout the project circle(s). Together, we will identify the most suitable solutions for Malta and the Mediterranean Sea to tackle the problems arising from ship emissions. These include for instance a change in political measures (establishment of emission control areas), technical measures (obligation for ships to install diesel particulate filter, selective catalytic reduction systems, seawater scrubbing and the use of liquefied natural gas), infrastructural measures (onshore power supplies from renewable energies), and voluntary measures for ports (ecological port fees depending on environmental performance of ships, incentive programs to motivate ship owners to be more environmental-friendly).

National and international partnership development

On the national level, the project activities have to be aligned with the objective to work together with relevant stakeholders from the maritime industry and authorities and discuss the necessary steps for the implementation of a SECA in the Mediterranean Sea.

On the international level, a network will be established that is able to work on shipping related to air pollution in the partnering Mediterranean countries. Regular exchange of information and knowledge sharing will take place through this network and we will take part at periodical conferences with other European members of the “Clean Cruise Ship Action Network”.

Project partners

This project involves six European partners which are all Mediterranean eNGOs, two of them BirdLife partners in Germany and Greece. Click on their logos to learn more about them.

nabuNaturschutzbund Deutschland, Germany






ornithologiki-greeceOrnithologiki, Greece





cittadini-per-laria-2Cittadini per l’Aria, Italy








ecologistas-en-accionEcologistas en Acción, Spain









france-nature-environnement-2France Nature Environnement, France


More information

NABU (2015): Clean Air in Ports Manual.

Centre for Energy, Environment and Health (2011): Assessment  of  Health-Cost  Externalities  of  Air  Pollution  at  the  National  Level  using  the  EVA  Model  System.

More information about the project from NABU.

The results of the first exercise in air pollution measurement carried out in Valletta (08 December 2016) and footage of the exercise being carried out.

Presentations and input provided by stakeholders such as national governments, EU bodies, industry stakeholders, leading scientists, ports and NGOs during the international shipping conference in Rome, March 2017. (Balearia, CE Delft, Danish Ecological Council, Dr Axel Friedrich, French Ministry for the Environment, NABU, Paul Scherrer Institute).


The adoption of the “Rome Declaration” by all the signatories at the international Mediterranean Shipping Conference held in Rome in March 2017

Adoption of the “Rome Declaration” for an ECA in the Mediterranean

On Tuesday 28th March 2017 the alliance of European environmental organisations participating in the “Together Against Air Pollution from Ships” project adopted the “Rome Declaration” to designate the Mediterranean Sea as an Emission Control Area (ECA) to limit air pollution from ships.

The declaration followed a one-day international Mediterranean Shipping Conference held in Rome. BirdLife Malta was present as one of the signatories.

Click here to read the press release issued on the adoption of the declaration on Wednesday 29th March 2017.

Undercover measurements taken by a French TV team working for the famous TV show “Thalassa” show that ship owners expose their passengers to high loads of health damaging pollutants. The French journalists documented concentrations up to 200 fold above natural background levels on deck of the cruise ship. (Photo by NABU)

Extreme air pollution levels found on deck of a cruise ship

Click here to read NABU‘s latest press release issued on 24th January 2017 on the high levels of ultra-fine particles found on deck of a cruise ship following an exercise carried out by French journalists and reported on French TV.

The measurements confirmed that cruise ships’ exhaust gases not only severely damage the environment but also harm human health. Undercover air tests taken on the passenger deck of a European cruise ship unveiled high loads of health damaging ultra-fine particles in the ambient air. A journalist documented concentrations up to 200 fold above natural background levels. The measurements were carried out by a French TV team working for the renowned TV show “Thalassa” which was broadcasted on January 20th on France 3.

This documentary initiated a big discussion on air pollution from cruise ships in France.