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Shipping companies install ‘cheat’ devices to hide sulphur emissions

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According to an investigation by the Independent, shipping companies have been spending billions of pounds fitting devices to hide their sulphur emissions whilst also rerouting the pollution into the sea.

Shipping is a major source of pollution. In addition to other pollutants, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) estimates that carbon dioxide emissions from shipping contributed towards 2.2 per cent of total anthropogenic emissions in 2012. These emissions are growing, with the shipping industry buoyed by generous tax breaks.

As part of its effort to stem the environmental damage wrought by the industry, the IMO will require shipping companies to adhere to a cap on the amount of sulphur released by vessels (restricted to 0.5 per cent mass by mass). The IMO states that this should have “major health and environmental benefits for the world, particularly for populations living close to ports and coasts”.

However, a report from the Independent finds that ‘cheating’ devices could threaten these efforts.

The devices, known as ‘open-loop scrubbers’, extract sulphurous gases from the exhausts of ships and re-route the pollution into the surrounding water. Use of open-loop scrubbers also contributes to the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air, as well as releasing acidic, contaminated water containing heavy metals and other carcinogens. The devices have already been banned from a number of ports in China, the US, Ireland, the UAE, Belgium and Germany.

The most-polluting vessels powered with the largest engines, such as oil tankers and bulk carriers, were among the first ships to be fitted with the devices. Open-loop scrubbers are permitted under current IMO regulations.

According to “conservative” estimates from the International Council on Clean Transport, shipping companies have already spent at least £9.7bn on the devices. The DNV GL – the world’s largest ship classification company – reports that 3,756 ships have been fitted with scrubbers, with numbers likely to exceed 4,000 by the time the IMO rule comes into force on 1 January 2020. Just 23 of these thousands of ships so far have had ‘closed-loop’ versions installed, which store the extracted fumes in tanks for safe disposal later.

Approximately half of the world’s cruise ships will also soon have these devices installed, threatening to damage some of the most beautiful, highly prized areas of the world.

Environmental campaigner Lucy Gilliam told the Independent that increasing the volumes of wastewater around ports could have a “devastating” effect on wildlife, with water quality already having been heavily degraded in the North Sea and some parts of the English Channel.

The IMO told the Independent that it had “adopted strict criteria for discharge of washwater from exhaust gas cleaning systems” and that it would be carrying out a review into 2015 guidelines on the exhaust systems.

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