Ships in some UK port cities create more air pollution than cars | Shipping emissions

Vessels docked at the most contaminated ports in the United Kingdom are emitting more nitrogen oxides than the total number of cars in those areas, according to a recent study.

Research by the organization Transport & Environment (T&E) highlights the alarming levels of air pollution produced by ships at ports, with areas like Milford Haven, Southampton, and Immingham leading in emissions of toxic sulphur oxides and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), in addition to nitrogen oxides (NOx).

The non-governmental organization stresses that these findings point to an immediate necessity for governmental measures to promote the use of cleaner fuels by ships and to compel ports to adopt emission-free technologies, such as land-based electrical power for docked ships.


Persons in the shipping and port sectors have criticized the report’s methods as flawed and have expressed doubts about the veracity of the comparisons. Nevertheless, they expressed their support for initiatives aimed at pollution reduction.

The report indicates that in the top 10 ports with the highest NOx pollution, approximately 4,000 vessels released about 75% more NOx than the nearly one million cars in the area combined.

In Southampton, a prominent location for cruise liners, the report finds that ships are generating four times the amount of NOx than all cars in the city, with cruise ships also being the principal contributors to PM2.5 pollutants.

Jonathan Hood, the UK’s advocate for sustainable maritime operations at T&E, commented that the excessive pollution levels identified by their analysis are a clear indicator of how the UK’s coastal cities are suffering due to emissions from a shipping sector that has been lax in adopting eco-friendly changes due to lack of government mandate.

“This significant opportunity to reshape the maritime industry into a more environmentally responsible sector shouldn’t be squandered. The updated clean maritime plan must incorporate a shift to sustainable energy sources, and enforce necessary implementations for zero-emission technologies, including shore-side electrical systems that let ships power down their engines while docked,” said Hood.

A representative of the UK Chamber of Shipping acknowledged the omission of Southampton’s adoption of land-based power for cruise liners from the report, mentioning it has had a positive impact on air quality. Despite conceding that the UK is lagging, they stressed the need for more power facilities.

“The maritime sector is committed to lowering emissions and is directing billions of dollars internationally to reach this goal. A plan developed jointly by the industry and government will provide a definitive pathway towards emissions reduction and will help to secure future investments,” added the spokesperson.

Mark Simmonds, director of policy at the British Ports Association, mentioned that aiming for net-zero targets will naturally enhance air quality. However, he criticized the report for irresponsibly ignoring the dispersion of emissions before they impact populated regions, therefore making ship-to-car emissions comparisons inadvisable.

“Emissions from sea vessels are confined primarily to the time when they are berthed and their main engines are inactive. These ships also bring in 450 million tons of goods annually, vital for society’s food and energy needs, comparing this to local automobile emissions does not make sense,” Simmonds explained.

Lord Deben, who previously chaired the government’s Climate Change Committee, expressed concern about the high emission levels from ships around UK ports. He urged the government to prioritize stronger measures for controlling emissions, stating that without decisive action, the consequences for both the health of individuals living around ports and the economic costs will escalate.

A representative from the Department for Transport stated that the UK intends to release a revised strategy about maritime cleanliness as a part of its broader aim to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The representative also mentioned that the UK has already allocated over £200 million towards developing innovative technologies to decarbonize the maritime industry and is considering the expansion of emission control areas beyond the North Sea, given its successful implementation there.

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