Dirty Shipping Fuel Smogs Up China’s Port Cities

Yangshan deep-water port in Shanghai Photograph by Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Roughly a quarter of the world’s container traffic passes through one of China’s major shipping ports. But a bustling seaport brings unexpected environmental hazards. While China has taken steps to curb vehicle emissions by raising fuel standards, ships are still permitted to burn heavily polluting fuel.

According to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the fuel burned by ocean vessels may contain sulfur levels that exceed by 100 to 3,500 times the level in diesel for automobiles. The upshot, the report finds, is that “one container ship cruising along the coast of China emits as much diesel pollution as 500,000 new Chinese trucks in a single day.”

Because several of China’s major cities are located on the eastern coast, port pollution has direct consequences for human health. Independent studies cited by NRDC show that container traffic is a significant source of ambient air pollution in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. In 2010, air pollution across China contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths, according to data published in the British medical journal the Lancet.

“Since Chinese port cities are among the most densely populated with the busiest ports in the world,” the NRDC report concludes, “air pollution from ships and port activities likely contributes to much higher public health risks than are found in other port regions.”

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