Monday, April 20, 2009

The environmental consequences of free trade

I'm cynically amused to find that the same environmental activists who campaigned to shut down much of the industry of the Western world, on the grounds that it was polluting the environment, are now finding that the shift in manufacturing to Asia is producing much more, and perhaps worse, pollution, both there and in our own back yard. As the Guardian reports:

Britain and other European governments have been accused of underestimating the health risks from shipping pollution following research which shows that one giant container ship can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50 million cars.

Confidential data from maritime industry insiders based on engine size and the quality of fuel typically used by ships and cars shows that just 15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760 million cars. Low-grade ship bunker fuel (or fuel oil) has up to 2,000 times the sulphur content of diesel fuel used in US and European automobiles.

Europe, which has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, has dramatically cleaned up sulphur and nitrogen emissions from land-based transport in the past 20 years but has resisted imposing tight laws on the shipping industry, even though the technology exists to remove emissions. Cars driving 15,000 km a year emit approximately 101 grammes of sulphur oxide gases (or SOx) in that time. The world's largest ships' diesel engines which typically operate for about 280 days a year generate roughly 5,200 tonnes of SOx.

Shipping emissions have escalated in the past 15 years as China has emerged as the world's manufacturing capital. A new breed of intercontinental container ship has been developed which is extremely cost-efficient. However, it uses diesel engines as powerful as land-based power stations but with the lowest quality fuel.

"Ship pollution affects the health of communities in coastal and inland regions around the world, yet pollution from ships remains one of the least regulated parts of our global transportation system," said James Corbett, professor of marine policy at the University of Delaware, one of the authors of the report which helped persuade the US government to act.

Shipping by numbers:

The world's biggest container ships have 109,000 horsepower engines which weigh 2,300 tons.

Each ship expects to operate 24 hrs a day for about 280 days a year.

There are 90,000 ocean-going cargo ships.

Shipping is responsible for 18-30% of all the world's nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution and 9% of the global sulphur oxide (SOx) pollution.

One large ship can generate about 5,000 tonnes of sulphur oxide (SOx) pollution in a year.

70% of all ship emissions are within 400 km of land.

85% of all ship pollution is in the northern hemisphere.

Shipping is responsible for 3.5% to 4% of all climate change emissions.

There's more at the link.

The difficulty, of course, is that with the world's manufacturing base having shifted to Asia, the need to ship its products to consumer markets throughout the rest of the world has doubled and redoubled. As the Guardian reported on last Christmas' importation of goods:

Christmas is coming not in sacks or sleighs this year but on board the biggest ship afloat, on its maiden voyage from China. To the relief of children, parents and shopkeepers everywhere - but to the despair of European manufacturers - mountains of crackers, toys and games as well as decorations, calendars, wrapping paper, food and every imaginable gift are currently steaming past Spain and should reach Felixstowe, Suffolk, on Saturday aboard the vast Emma Maersk 3.

If anything - perish the thought - should happen to this quarter of a mile long, 200ft-high (61 metre) behemoth, that is as wide as a motorway and is powered by the largest diesel engine ever built, then Christmas might have to be cancelled. The manifest for the 3,000 containers of goods that it will drop off in Britain on its way to mainland Europe reveals the largest single consignment of festive cheer ever delivered - a floating world of British desires and necessities.

. . .

While the boat is carrying around 11,000 containers and is by far the largest container ship ever built, Yentian port, where it set off from for Europe last month, now exports nearly three times that many containers every day. China is now far and away the world's biggest maker and exporter of everything from toy gorillas to steel and electronic goods.

The manifest of the ship perfectly reflects the consumer society at Christmas. Crackers, poker tables, bingo sets, drum kits, electronic toys and pre-school building blocks by the score will be delivered in astonishing quantities: 1,886,000 Christmas decorations are loaded in one container, 40,000 rechargeable batteries and 22,280 kg of Vietnam tea in another. In another are 12,800 MP3 players.

The British Christmas table would barely groan without the Emma Maersk. The thousands of container-loads that the Guardian has seen show thousands of frozen chickens, 150 tonnes of New Zealand lamb, pumpkins, 10 tonnes of mussels, along with unspecified quantifies of swordfish, tuna, noodles, biscuits, jams and "lunch boxes".

There are potato mashers, slotted spoons and graters to cook with, toothpicks, leather sofas to recline on, new spectacles to watch new televisions by, and pyjamas to go to bed in. Pets will be especially pleased; 138,000 tins of catfood - variety unknown - are on their way, as are mountains of dogfood.

. . .

"Whole sectors of global trade are now being dominated by companies operating out of China and it's clear that the whole free trade project is in question. The real cost of the goods that the Emma Maersk is bringing in should include the environment, the markets destroyed in developing countries and the millions of jobs lost."

. . .

The Emma Maersk, the first of a fleet of seven equally large container ships, will soon be on its way back to China. But instead of carrying toys and electronic gorillas, catfood and computers, it will be taking back the detritus of a throwaway Christmas.

In what has been described as both a virtuous and a vicious circle, one of Britain's biggest exports to China is now waste plastic - which is turned back into the soft toys and decorations that the Emma Maersk brings to Britain.

Again, there's more at the link.

I'd love to know how much pollution is emitted by a car transport ship bringing 'eco-friendly' vehicles like the Toyota Prius from Japan to America. It might make the car as a whole look distinctly less 'eco-friendly'!



LabRat said...

The environmentalist movement would be far more efficient at achieving its goals if the bulk of its membership bothered to educate themselves in economics AND ecology. As of now most are woefully ignorant of both.

And hybrid cars are only eco-friendly if the only dimension you're considering is fuel efficiency. Those batteries they use are nasty toxic things, and a disposal hazard.

greencar said...

Ships may well be a far more efficient way to transport goods over long distances than the alternatives. But it would make no sense to compare pollution per mile for road vehicles and cargo ships, since they're not interchangeable.