Ships To Become LA’s Biggest Polluters


Image: Allen J. Schaben / LATimes

Ships visiting Southern California’s bustling ports are poised to become the region’s largest source of smog-causing pollutants in the coming years and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) wants to tackle this looming problem. However, as the LA Times reported, residents who live near the ports and are most affected by the toxic pollution worry that regulators are not moving fast enough and that shipping companies will flex their political might to weaken proposed regulations. (A fear that’s not unwarranted)

What’s Being Proposed: Air quality officials want to expand the number of ships that, while docked, must either shut down their auxiliary engines and plug into shore power or scrub their exhaust by hooking up to machines known as bonnets or “socks on a stack.”

What’s The Problem: Ports are hubs of economic activity but ships often rely on heavy fuel oil which is responsible for pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), and particulate matter (PM). As air quality company Aeroqual explained, the health effects of prolonged exposure to these compounds include respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and premature death.

CARB Clean Air Plan: This past December the CARB  voted to approve an updated plan for the South Coast Air Basin aimed at further cutting smog-forming emissions (like from ships). These rules would be the most stringent in the nation and the state predicts big improvements in health and air quality from strengthening the rules. As the LA Times explained, by 2031, the rules are expected to slash emissions of diesel particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from docked ships by about half and reduce their contribution to cancer risk around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by 55% over the same period.

Why This Matters: International shipping is a large and growing source of global emissions–responsible for about 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonizing this sector will come with immense challenges but we need to take steps right now to steer the industry in the right direction. While the world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, has made a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, it will take government carrots and sticks to attain true decarbonization.

This will also require nations working together to ensure that ports around the world all hold companies to emissions reductions standards. Right now some shipping companies are willfully not complying with CA’s standards and opting to pay penalties because their ships don’t often dock at those ports.

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