Increased air pollution around the Maltese Islands and ways to tackle the issue

July 28, 2017 1:53 pm

It is only half of the story when ships are being considered as environmentally friendly. Irrespective whether cruise or container ships, ferries, or yachts – these ships gather a broad range of fuming smokestacks, which emit a great deal of air pollutants causing damage to our climate, environment and health. The reason for this is that seagoing vessels run on Heavy Fuel Oil, which is high in sulphur and heavy metals.

The sulphur content of marine fuels is currently capped at a maximum of 3.5% (so called Heavy Fuel Oil, HFO). This is 3,500 times more than is permitted in the diesel fuel used in cars and trucks (0.001%). In Malta – even though surrounded by sea and highly dependent on shipping traffic – knowledge and awareness on the problems resulting from ship emissions remain widely unknown and action from responsible government authorities is not being taken.

The sulphur content of marine fuels is 3,500 times more than is permitted in the diesel fuel used in cars and trucks. (Photo by Nicholas Barbara)

Recent study results published by the Department of Geosciences of the University of Malta, show the extent of air pollution caused by ships around the Maltese island. Atmospheric physicist Prof. Raymond Ellul and his team have assessed an area of 200km by 200km around Malta with 1,774,448 ship data points, showing 84,500 ship movements which were detected in the area in 2015 alone. Prof. Ellul highlights the problem of air pollution from ships in Malta, stating, “One big tanker that passes by has an engine of about 80 megawatts. A Maltese power station outputs a maximum of 450 megawatts. So a tanker is a fifth of that. But we get 200 ships of that size passing by Malta like that going through every day! It’s like having a couple of hundred mini-power stations going past every day,’ emitting sulphur dioxide and everything else a power station would emit.”

More detailed and technical information is provided by Martin Saliba, Senior Technical Officer at Ġordan Lighthouse Data Monitoring Station in Gozo by explaining that the 200km square of the study surrounding Malta is suffering “50.9 kilotonnes of nitrous oxide, 30.3 kilotonnes of sulphur dioxide, three kilotonnes of carbon monoxide, along with a devastating 2080 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide”. These numbers are shocking; compared to emissions from cars, these numbers equal nitrous oxide emitted from 4.1 billion cars, sulphur dioxide from 1,515 billion cars and carbon dioxide from 365,000 cars (comparison to average value of a car with emission standard Euro 4 in 2012).

European countries that are facing the same problem took action to reduce the pollution caused by ships in their territorial waters; declaring the Mediterranean Sea as an Emission Control Area is one of the many existing solutions. Beside political measures, governments and private port authorities can implement technical and infrastructural measures, which address the issue of air pollution from ships directly. This month (July 2017), the European Commission published a study on port infrastructure to promote environmentally friendly maritime transport activities and sustainable transportation. The study highlights best-practice examples from various ports worldwide, benefits and costs, including the economic aspect and environmental potential of certain schemes and guidelines to equip other ports with the manual on how these practices can be developed in their respective countries.

We call on our government to take up on the issue of highly poisonous emissions from ships by tackling it on a national and regional level. Suitable measures have to be identified and implemented to reduce the air pollution from ships in Malta and the Mediterranean to create less damage to our environment and health.

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By Janina Laurent, BirdLife Malta Policy Officer