Will Cleaner Fuel for Ships Wreck the Economy and Worsen Global Warming?

CC BY 2.0. Ship in Copenhagen/ Lloyd Alter

That's what a lot of people are saying as new pollution rules for 2020 get closer.

The shipping industry runs on bunker fuel, the thick, sulfurous residual oil that's at the bottom of the barrel. When it's burned it puts out vast amounts of PM2.5 and sulfur pollutants; according to a study published in Nature Communications, it's enough to cause 400,000 premature deaths and 14 million cases of childhood asthma annually. (Other estimates are lower, at 60,000 deaths per year)

particulate pollution before law change

Mikhail Sofiev et al /CC BY 4.0To end this pollution, death, and disease, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) passed a rule two years ago that would require ships to use fuel that had no more than 0.5 percent sulfur. That basically means they have to install scrubbers (which is a bad idea, since they use seawater and are acidifying the oceans) or switch to what is essentially diesel fuel.

pollution after

Mikhail Sofiev et al/CC BY 4.0

Ships burn 3.8 million barrels of fuel per day, and Liam Denning of Bloomberg estimates that as much as 2.5 million barrels a day of diesel will be diverted to shipping. People are beginning to realize that this will cause increases in fuel prices and are pushing back, as they will with almost any measure that reduces pollution and saves lives.

The Trump administration first tried to delay the imposition with what they called an "experience building phase." According to the Wall Street Journal,

“Few things terrify an American president more than a spike in fuel prices,” said Bob McNally, a former energy adviser to then-President George W. Bush. “If President Trump learns that IMO 2020 risks a big fuel oil-price spike in the winter of a presidential election, he is going to object.”

They lost that battle, but suddenly the media are full of scary stories about price increases. The CBC news reports that airlines and the trucking industry will see huge spikes.

"It will rise in a remarkable way," [analyst Jon Morrison] said about the price of diesel, "in the neighbourhood of 30 percent plus."

The Economist claims that the rule change will "impose crippling costs on the industry while worsening global warming." That's because all that killer sulfur has a net cooling effect. They quote the same study we did earlier:

Some studies find that by burning heavy marine fuel the industry is slowing global warming, as the cooling effects of sulphur emissions outweigh the warming caused by those of carbon dioxide. Scientists at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo calculate that shipping in net terms reduced man-made warming by 7% in 2000. The IMO’s new rules will undo much of this effect. The paper in Nature Communications found that the use of lower-sulphur fuels after 2020 will reduce the cooling effect from shipping by around 80%.

The Economist says that the economic cost of the change will be huge, quoting one economist who estimates that it "would hit world trade and wipe a staggering 3% off America’s GDP and 1.5% off the whole world’s in 2020."

The noise about this is getting louder every day, and I suspect that someday soon, the IMO will decide that saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year is too high a price to pay. They may even read the Economist and decide that a sulphurous atmosphere is a good thing.