Climate change and sea pollution

Shipping and the climate crisis

Shipping has the potential to be a clean and sustainable means of transport, but has consistently failed to realise its potential.

Ships are responsible for 2-3% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. These emissions are predicted to double or triple by 2050 and could easily undermine all other efforts at keeping warming below the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 degrees.

The  1997 Kyoto Protocol  obliged developed countries to pursue reductions by working through the  International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN body responsible for regulating international shipping, but progress has been very slow. After 20 years all we have is a target for the energy efficiency of new ships that is so weak it is hardly better than business as usual. No binding measures have been agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of ships, and no reduction target has been set.

The problem of shipping’s impact on the climate can only be solved with a suite of ambitious measures addressing the  design of new ships  , the  operation of existing ships  and the introduction of fuel efficient and renewable technologies, all within the framework of clear emission reduction targets that are consistent with keeping warming below 1.5 degrees.  Special measures are required to protect the  Arctic.

And this will only be possible if the shipping industry stops blocking progress and States start treating rising temperatures as a genuine global crisis in need of immediate ambitious action.


Waste from ships

In the North Sea, one of the world’s busiest areas for shipping, up to 40% of marine litter comes from the maritime sector. In Europe, it has been estimated that around 20,000 tonnes of waste is dumped each year in the North Sea. In the Netherlands as much as 90% of the plastic found on beaches originates from shipping and fisheries.

Port reception facilities are the waste disposal facilities provided for ships by port authorities. If these facilities are inadequate, complicated to use or simply too expensive, then it provides ship operators and crews with an incentive to dump their garbage at sea instead. This is illegal in most cases but once at sea they are unlikely to be detected by authorities. In the EU the port waste reception facilities are governed by EU Directive 2000/59/EC which states that all ports must provide adequate reception facilities for ships waste and recoup the costs through a certain amount of indirect fee.

The directive is not prescriptive enough, and has led to a wide range of waste reception systems across Europe. There is evidence to show that this confusion is contributing to ship waste dumping. Seas At Risk believes that only through a European wide, harmonisation of port reception facilities will we end ship waste dumping. The PRF Directive is up for review, and we will be working to ensure that the problems associated with it and the environmental impacts of the directive’s poor performance are fixed.

As part of our work on ship sourced marine litter, Seas At Risk calls for:

  • A ‘one-stop-shop’ approach that places administrative responsibility for waste reception with the port authority. This will reduce confusion for shipping agents and aid in enforcement and data collection.
  • 100% Indirect fee – all ships calling at port must pay the same fee regardless of whether they use the facilities or not.
  • Individual ship waste inspections – to identify polluters and aid enforcement.
  • Mandatory waste discharge for all vessels.
  • Reception facilities for fishermen to dispose of their old gear and prevent dumping at sea.


Waste from land

The majority of marine litter comes from land. Top sources include littering along the coastline and beaches, sewage treatment plants and storm water overflows, from rivers and badly managed landfills close to water ways. The amount of litter entering the seas from rivers is not fully understood, but early studies are showing them to be a major source of this kind of pollution; even cities far from the coast are still contributing to marine litter.

Awareness raising about littering plays an important part in prevention, and many of our members do valuable work in this area. However, Seas At Risk focuses on how EU legislation can best be altered to create the right legislative framework to end the creation of marine litter. A move to full resource efficiency and a circular economy is essential to end the throw-away, high consumption culture we have grown accustomed to. Single-use plastics are mostly unnecessary in our lives and represent a serious environmental problem. Waste must be seen as a valuable resource that should not be thrown away, and instead is reduced, reused and recycled.