Blog from Sophie Shnapp: New London toxic cruise port creates pollution hotspot

This year, 36 enormous cruise ship hotels will be moored on the Thames in London between Greenwich and Tower Bridge, some for several days at a time, each burning thick diesel and belching out poisonous fumes.

The toxic fumes from these cruise liners exacerbate London’s existing deadly pollution levels. Air pollution alone leads to 9,500 premature deaths in the capital each year (King’s College London). London is already in breach of EU safety limits of nitrogen oxides (NOx), prompting legal action by Client Earth, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must publish a clean-up plan by the end of the year. In tandem with these rising levels, Oxford Street proudly carried away the “most polluted street on the earth” award in 2016. Allowing these cruise ships to moor pushes us even further away from safe EU targets and into some very dangerous territory.

Undisputed estimates provided by GLA air quality consultants confirm that a medium sized cruise ship would burn about 700 litres of marine diesel an hour This is the equivalent level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate pollution produced by almost 700 idling heavy goods vehicles. Times that by 36 ships!

On May Bank Holiday weekend, the Viking Sun, the first cruise ship of the season, moored at Greenwich from Friday to Sunday, and burned about 46,000 litres of marine diesel just yards from the windows and balconies of this densely populated residential area while running its auxiliary engines to operate the electricity, heating, ventilation and catering on board.

There are 12 schools within a half-mile radius of the Greenwich site. Laura Eyres, No Toxic Cruise Port for London campaign co-founder, said the dark smoke of the Viking Sun “blew across to homes, a new children’s playground at New Capital Quay and people just out by the river enjoying the sunshine.”

Diesel fumes are the most dangerous of pollutants, rated as a level one carcinogen by the World Health Organisation, on a par with cigarette smoke. Marine diesel contains large amounts of sulphur, combusting it produces sulphur dioxide (SO2), which irritates the nose, throat, and airways and causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, especially dangerous for those suffering from asthma or breathing problems. SO2 and NO2 are two of the most poisonous components of diesel fumes, they are lethal and cause a plethora of issues: heart disease, stroke, cancer, mental health disorders, lung impairment and cognitive dysfunction, especially dangerous for the development of young children.

So how is this happening under our noses? It is due to the scandalous fact that although Michael Gove has promised to take action on diesel emissions from land vehicles, there is no regulation in place for river traffic.

There is confusion about who is responsible for emissions from vessels on the river. Sadiq Khan does not have the power to curtail these emissions. Neither does Michael Gove. It is shocking that on the river which runs right through the heart of London’s “Low Emission Zone” a cruise ship can belch 688 HGV’s worth of diesel fumes around the clock for 60 hours with impunity. Although there is some restriction in place on the emission of SO2 on the river, there is no restriction on the emission of NOx or particulate matter.

The tipping point is that, in 2011, Greenwich council granted planning permission for a cruise ship terminal to be built at Enderby Wharf. The terminal has been given permission for 55 visits a year from May to September and for the cruise ships to run their diesel engines while “hoteling” there. If 60 hours is the average length of stay, we would be looking at a cruise ship in Greenwich burning 700 litres of fuel an hour virtually every day of the summer.

It is shocking to discover that living in London’s “Low Emission Zone” actually means we are still in danger of being poisoned by NO2 and SO2 through emissions from cruise ships.

Is there a solution to this problem? Can our cruise ships not be docked in a zero emissions cruise port using onshore electricity? The answer is yes; it is possible and feasible.  According to Schneider Electric, the switch could save the UK up to £483m in health related costs.

Global actions are being taken and policies are already in place aiming to lower emissions from ports and shipping. The International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH) Vice-President Europe, Peter Mollema, said “ports are ready to facilitate the pathway to zero-emission shipping” and have already begun working on an emissions reduction plan. The European Union’s Directive 2014/94/EU on the deployment of Alternative Fuel Infrastructures mandates that all ports are to provide onshore power by 2025, meaning that all cruise ships will get their power from clean onshore power sources.

Clean onshore power is the only way to ensure London’s ports are safe and healthy.  There are many examples of cruise ports around the world such as Brooklyn, Hamburg, Oslo, Los Angeles and Montreal who are already enjoying the benefits from the use of clean electric onshore power. By 2030, the Clean Shipping Vision of Amsterdam’s port  is set to achieve a 50% reduction in NOx, sulphur oxides (SOx) and particulate matter (PM) emissions of docked sea cruise ships compared to today’s levels. The port of Rotterdam aims to be a zero-emission and silent port by 2050, striving to become a thriving centre of economic activity and employment. Rotterdam’s port, designed by Remco Neumann, will be safer and healthier, incorporating digitisation and new technologies in its design.

The ‘No Toxic Cruise Port for London’ campaign wants London to either follow the example of these ports by building a state of the art, zero emission cruise port or not to build a cruise port at all. The cost of installing clean power at the port is estimated to be £6 million, but this can be offset by a linked multi-million pound housing development and Greenwich Borough’s own projections of around  £25 million per annum in local benefits once the terminal is established.

Now is the time to act. The land the port will be built on is owned by Morgan Stanley, who are trying to sell it on, rebranded as ‘Maritime View’. Let’s make sure that anyone interested in buying that land knows that London will not stand for a toxic cruise port in what is already a pollution hotspot. Even though there is cross party support from MPs for a clean green cruise port, Sadiq Khan and Michael Gove say that they are powerless to act. But that’s just not good enough.

So what are you waiting for? Follow this link and sign the petition and learn more about clean onshore power at London’s new cruise port.

Write or tweet to politicians and companies to let them know that we want the Thames to be included in London’s Low Emission zone. Hashtag Morgan Stanley and Maritime View in your tweets to:

Michael Gove // @michaelgove  //

Sadiq Khan // @SadiqKhan //

Royal Borough of Greenwich // @DanLThorpe // @Royal_Greenwich [] //


The author, Sophie Shnapp, is an independent energy efficiency and climate consultant based in London. Check out Sophie on Twitter and Linkedin.

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