The Malta Independent 23 August 2019, Friday

TMID Editorial: Shipping emissions - Malta’s golden opportunity to lead the way forward

Thursday, 6 June 2019, 12:12 Last update: about 4 months ago

We are always saying that we can be the best on the world at this, that and the other, hollow words mainly, but there is one massive opportunity where Mata is able to punch well above its weight and leverage its clout on a global stage but for some reason it never speaks about it.

That opportunity has presented itself once again this week at the London headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation, where the world’s shippers congregated to decide on how, exactly the sector, one of the world’s biggest polluters, should start decarbonising itself.

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The negotiations formed part of a global process on how to cut shipping’s large and growing emissions.  Among the 15-odd proposals on the table in London were those that include setting speed limits on ships and increasing operational efficiency were just two of the 15 proposals on the table for reducing emissions in the short term, meaning before 2023.

Transparency International reported last year how five states - Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Malta and the Bahamas – together own over half the world’s shipping fleet and contribute 44 per cent of the total funding from the IMO’s 170 member states.

The NGO had posited how these five countries ‘have exaggerated weight in the IMO policymaking processes, particularly when no mechanism exists to protect against undue influence’.

And that is where Malta has a golden opportunity to truly be the best in the world and to make a significant effort to actually stem the greenhouse gas emissions not only from the ships flying its flag, but also by leveraging its clout at IMO level to have such proposals see the light of day.

If Malta could pull off such a feat, or at least force a real discussion o the topic, then that would truly be a world-changing gambit.

Figures released by the National Statistics Office on Tuesday on the occasion of World Environment day show a total of 316 cruise liner calls per year between 2014 and 2018 – all belching out black smoke in the Grand Harbour and across the surrounding heavily-populated communities.

During the same period, sea transport between Malta and Gozo increased by 19 per cent, from 19,860 trips in 2014 to 23,619 trips (including return trips) in 2018.  Added into the mix is all the cargo ship traffic coming into the Grand Harbour and the Freeport, which do not figure in the NSO’s statistics.

Gas oil (or heavy fuel oil) and diesel oil are the mostly used type of fuel for sea transport. In 2017, the use of such heavily-polluting fuel (the same that was once used at the Delimara power station and which the Prime Minister himself had dubbed a ‘cancer factory’).  The amount of such fuel used in Malta cited by the NSO added up to 13 kilotonnes of oil equivalent.  That figure appears to account only for Gozo Channel trips and cruise liner visits, and negates all the other cargo ships visiting our shores on a daily basis, and bringing with them their clouds of black smoke.

Back to the IMO negotiations, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the US are reported be the worst offenders for blocking progress, objecting even to the concept of prioritising emissions reduction measures.  It was the same three countries that had last year refused to sign up to the greenhouse gas deal agreed by the IMO, which targets a 50 percent cut in emissions from shipping by 2050, compared to 2008 levels.

Recent studies have shown that pollution levels from ships in Malta’s Grand Harbour are 10 times higher than pollution levels on the country’s most congested roads. This is a frightening when one considers the amount of people and population density of the harbour area, not to mention further south in other shipping-heavy areas such as Birzebbuga or Marsaxlokk.

Figures show the shocking extent of the menace.  Shipping emissions are accountable for 50,000 premature deaths every year in Europe and for €60 billion in health costs per year in the European Union. In the Mediterranean region alone, about 6,000 premature deaths could be avoided if pollution were to be curbed in a significant way.

Air pollution from shipping can account for 40% of all Mediterranean costal city air pollution and let’s face it, Malta is pretty much a coastal city in European terms.  And as such we are facing a significant threat to our health, environment and climate due to ships’ use of heavy fuel oil - highly charged in sulphur and which emits black carbon, heavy metals, fine particulates, and sulphur dioxide.

Malta has one of the largest fleets in the world and while many of these ships flying the Maltese flag rarely visit Malta, we still have an awful lot of cargo ship and cruise ship traffic, which have been shown time and time again to have a severely detrimental effect on air quality and people’s health.

We seem to be perpetually talking about Malta becoming the best in Europe or the best in the world, now here is a golden opportunity to seize the bull by the horns and to do just that.

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