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The European Union has agreed a law to dramatically cut the proportion of sulphur in shipping fuel, meaning lower emissions of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, writes Stephen Gardner. It sounds like good news for sailors and seagulls, but why should landlubbers be concerned?

In fact, shipping emissions are a serious source of air pollution, causing an estimated 50,000 early deaths each year in Europe. Belgium and neighbouring countries are particularly effected because the North Sea is criss-crossed by some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Ships contribute 13 percent of the sulphur dioxide pollution that floats across Belgium, and 31 percent for the Netherlands, according to reports prepared for the European Parliament.

Ships are also far more polluting than cars, trucks and factories because, while air pollution from sources on land has been progressively regulated, shipping emissions got left behind. Sulphur content in the fuel from your local petrol station is 100 times less than even the tightest regulated marine fuel.

So it is with some justification that Finnish Green member of the European Parliament Satu Hassi said that limiting sulphur in shipping fuel was “the biggest health reform that is going to happen during this parliamentary term”.

However, Hassi, who negotiated for the European Parliament with EU member states over the legislation, did not get everything she wanted. By 2020, shipping fuel will have about 85 percent less sulphur than currently, but Hassi wanted cuts of 90 percent or more in to be applied all around the EU coastline from 2015. In the final negotiations, this was overruled. The EU limits are thus less strict than those applied in the United States, where very tight limits apply in most of the waters within 200 nautical miles of its shoreline.

A persistent problem

For many Europeans, air pollution is a problem that has been solved, or perhaps more accurately, transferred to countries such as China where manufacturing is concentrated. Smoke-belching factory chimneys and smogs are a rare sight nowadays. But air pollution is not a thing of the past. The 50,000 early deaths caused annually by shipping air pollution are in fact only 10 percent of the total.

Air pollution also reduces quality of life. Asthma in Belgium, for example, is at relatively high rates, with about 4.1 percent of people suffering from it, compared to an EU average of about 3.8 percent, according to European Community Health Indicators. Although the prevalence of some air pollutants has been significantly reduced, others remain stubbornly high. Fine particles emitted by vehicle exhausts are a particular problem, compounded by the high number of diesel cars in Europe: diesel exhaust fumes are laden with fine particles, though diesel cars produce less carbon dioxide.

Brussels performs poorly for fine particle pollution. A “soot-free” city ranking of 17 European cities gave Brussels an F grade, significantly lagging behind better performers such as Berlin and Vienna. The less-polluted cities take numerous measures to improve air quality: introducing low emission zones, using the public budget to buy the cleanest public vehicles, and streamlined traffic management.

The European Commission wants to spread these habits. It has made 2013 the European Year of Air, and will also review EU limits for air pollutants. Jacqueline McGlade, head of the European Environment Agency, speaking at the European Parliament in September, said that public knowledge about air pollution is also part of the strategy. People need to know that air pollution has not gone away. “The solutions will be found locally when people are precisely aware of what they're being exposed to,” she said.

A version of this article was published in (A)Way Magazine.

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