Big polluters: one massive container ship equals 50 million cars

15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760m cars
15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760m cars
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Worlds largest container ship
Worlds largest container ship
Worlds largest container ship
Worlds largest container ship
15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760m cars
15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760m cars

April 23, 2009 The Guardian has reported on new research showing that in one year, a single large container ship can emit cancer and asthma-causing pollutants equivalent to that of 50 million cars. The low grade bunker fuel used by the worlds 90,000 cargo ships contains up to 2,000 times the amount of sulfur compared to diesel fuel used in automobiles. The recent boom in the global trade of manufactured goods has also resulted in a new breed of super sized container ship which consume fuel not by the gallons, but by tons per hour, and shipping now accounts for 90% of global trade by volume.

The title of world’s largest container ship is actually held by eight identical ships owned by Danish shipping line Mærsk. All eight ships are 1300ft (397.7m) long and can carry 15,200 shipping containers around the globe at a steady 25.5 knots (47.2 km/h, 29.3 mph) . The only thing limiting the size of these ships is the Suezmax standard, which is the term used to define the the largest ships capable of transiting the Suez Canal fully loaded. These ships far surpass the Panamax standard (ships that can fit through the Panama Canal), which is limited to ships capable of carrying 5,000 shipping containers.

Not only are shipbuilders resetting the world record for size on a regular basis but so are the diesel engines that propel them. One of the eight longest container ships in the world, the 1,300 ft Emma Mærsk also has the world's largest reciprocating engine. At five storeys tall and weighing 2300 tonnes, this 14 cylinder turbocharged two-stroke monster puts out 84.4 MW (114,800 hp) - up to 90MW when the motor's waste heat recovery system is taken into account. These mammoth engines consume approx 16 tons of fuel per hour or 380 tons per day while at sea.

Unregulated emissions

In international waters ship emissions remains one of the least regulated parts of our global transportation system. The fuel used in ships is waste oil, basically what is left over after the crude oil refining process. It is the same as asphalt and is so thick that when cold it can be walked upon . It's the cheapest and most polluting fuel available and the world's 90,000 ships chew through an astonishing 7.29 million barrels of it each day, or more than 84% of all exported oil production from Saudi Arabia, the worlds largest oil exporter.

Shipping is by far the biggest transport polluter in the world. There are 760 million cars in the world today emitting approx 78,599 tons of Sulphur Oxides (SOx) annually. The world's 90,000 vessels burn approx 370 million tons of fuel per year emitting 20 million tons of Sulphur Oxides. That equates to 260 times more Sulphur Oxides being emitted by ships than the worlds entire car fleet. One large ship alone can generate approx 5,200 tonnes of sulphur oxide pollution in a year, meaning that 15 of the largest ships now emit as much SOx as the worlds 760 million cars.

South Korea's STX shipyard says it has designed a ship to carry 22,000 shipping containers that would be 450 meters long and there are already 3,693 new ship builds on the books for ocean going vessels over 150 meters in length due over the next three years. The amount of air pollution just these new ships will put out when launched is equal to having another 29 billion cars on the roads.

The UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) released a report in 2007 saying a 10% reduction in fuel burning was possible on existing ships and 30-40% possible for new ships but the technology is largely unused, as the regulations are largely voluntary.

Nuclear future?

Oddly enough there is never any mention of alternative power sources such as nuclear power. Nuclear marine propulsion has been in widespread naval use for over 50 years starting in 1955. There are 150 ships in operation that use nuclear propulsion with most being submarines, although they range from ice breakers to aircraft carriers. A Nimitz class supercarrier has more than twice as much power (240,000 hp, 208 MW) as the largest container ship diesel engines ever built and is capable of continuously operating for 20 years without refueling (some French Rubis-class submarines can go 30 years between refueling). The U.S. Navy has accumulated over 5,400 "reactor years" of accident-free experience, and operates more than 80 nuclear-powered ships.

Airborne pollution from these giant diesel engines has been linked to sickness in coastal residents near busy shipping lanes. Up to 60,000 premature deaths a year worldwide are said to be as a result of particulate matter emissions from ocean-going ship engines. The IMO, which regulates shipping for 168 member nations, last October enacted new mandatory standards for phasing in cleaner engine fuel. By 2020, sulphur in marine fuel must be reduced by 90% although this new distilled fuel may be double the price of current low grade fuels.

Paul Evans

Via: Guardian.co.uk.

See this link for an informative overview of global shipping emissions from Glenn klith Andersen.

Ships emissions can be strictly regulated in harbors and coastal waters by any nation. If the US would limit such ship emissions in our ports and harbors by fining operators for violations (easily taken by Ramen spectroscopy or other non-intrusive means) then ships could carry clean fuel to use near our shores and dirty fuel to spew filthy emissions way out to sea. It would not be a perfect solution, but it might save the largest number of people from sickness and death in our ports.
Sam Ballin
Just a thought... if ten smaller ships were used instead wouldn\'t that be more pollution, more waste and more fuel used?
Darrell Tierney
It\'s unregulated emissions arent it\'s most serious faults- the most serious, is that this ship loads full in China of all matter of their goods and sails to USA- then returns empty- what does tell you about the future of our world?
John in Brisbane
Interesting article, particularly the last 2 paragraphs. I don\'t have a problem with Nuclear power, just the human factor, which includes the design, operation and profit/safety dynamic. Given what\'s happened in Japan this month, there will be a move away from the consideration of nuclear power, for better or worse. Maybe things like Thorium reactors have a future? I\'d be happy to see it if certain design and safety standards can be achieved, including automatic sealing and entombing of reactors in the case of catastrophes.
Finally the real culprits are show for what they truly are - ocean and air fouling money generators for a few wealthy families and corporations. Failure to remedy this issue makes the WTO and WHO shallow and powerless contraptions that only approximate effective trade and health entities. The seas are not lawless expanses of wilderness to be exploited by a few at the great cost of many.
Indeed. The article draws many comparisons between the amount of sulphur oxides produced by these massive container ships and those of cars across the globe. However I would be interested to know the levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases that would contribute to climate change. What proportion of global climate change could be attributed to these massive containers in comparison to the 760 million cars on the planet (at the time of writing)? Another point to raise, if shipping accounts for 90% of transportation of goods around the world and phasing in cleaner fuel which would double the price of low grade fuel currently in use - imagine the impact on transportation costs and the knock on effect on global food prices and goods. To my good friend Darrell Tierney, pherhaps this would help in some fashion to rebalance amercias terms of trade with china and reduce its trade deficit. Mattimus x0x
This is completely astounding to me. I\'ve just become a huge fan of maritime nuclear energy.
A few things. 1. Maersk actually does a lot of things to make their ships more green. Partly of course to save on fuel costs but also to pollute less and their fleet of ships is a very modern one. Those massive ships with their massive engines are super efficient with more than fifty percent of the energy used going to move the ship which compared to fx. car engines is way more efficient (in a car something like 80% of the energy consumed is wasted). 2. What TogetherinParis mentions with regards to burning cleaner fuels near city ports is being done by Maersk (and likely also by some of the other big names in shipping). 3. Maersk has bigger ships on order with something like 20%. 4. Nuclear propulsion may have it\'s good sides but there is a whole range of issues. Safety, waste, price and uran is also not just something you dig up there is environment issues with that process as well. Also the safety thing is not just about possible accidents but imagine how big a terror target such a ship would be. The military nuclear vessels sort of come with their own terror protection but civilian vessels would need protection by armed guards maybe even escort vessels! Clarification: I\'m not affiliated with Maersk I just happen to live a stone throw away from their HQ and I have also been on board the Emma Maersk when she was introduced (it\'s a huge ship that makes even large buildings seem small).
Geert Kruiter
This article was published in 2009. How does it come that we never see this on our front page news? I wasn\'t aware of it until I just noticed this old article. It seems as if nobody cares. Why do we bother about buying cleaner or green cars if these giant polluters simply make it appear as not relevant whatever we do to improve our environment.
Thanks for the article - I have long wondered just how much fuel was burnt keeping our jobs in Asia while devastating the environment. I knew it was a lot as I served aboard the USS Ranger, a diesel fueled super carrier. At hard steam we blew through 230,000 gallons a day in the 1970\'s.
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