Time to Clean Up Shipping?

In the battle against global warming, the fumes from jet engines and car tailpipes appear to get all the attention. But increasingly, greens are realizing that away from the highways and slipstreams, another major source of greenhouse gases is going almost entirely unregulated.

The freighters that bring food and trade goods to US consumers now produce one-twentieth of global greenhouse gases - almost as much as America’s trucks and cars, and twice as much as the world’s airliners. To make matters worse, scientists say emissions could rise 75 percent in the next 15 years.

With ocean traffic not covered by Kyoto, the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been working to curb greenhouse-gas emissions for years. So far, though, its efforts have been scuppered by opposition from the shipping lobby - and from countries like Panama and Liberia, which make big profits registering commercial ships.

Shamefully, the IMO has even failed to implement rules on conventional pollution: As things stand, the world’s 90,000 ocean freighters remain free to belch ozone-busting gases and carcinogenic smog into the air above the world’s waterways.

With international regulatory efforts stuck in the doldrums, America is uniquely placed to force the industry’s hand. The world’s cargo carriers need access to American markets; if the US pushes through unilateral reforms, companies will have little choice but to comply.

Unsurprisingly, though, America’s enfeebled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proven reluctant to take action. So this week, a coalition of environmental groups issued a formal petition that could ultimately force the government’s hand.

Hoping for a coup similar to that which led the EPA to accept responsibility for regulating tailpipe emissions, the petitioners argue that the agency can claim authority over foreign ships on the grounds that their emissions directly affect Americans. They say the EPA should ban the use of heavy “bunker oil” in US waters and force freighters to switch to cleaner fuels.

Other options include setting a maritime speed limit to reduce fuel consumption, or simply requiring docked ships to use mainland power supplies rather than idling their engines to power shipboard systems. More sophisticated measures are also available, ranging from incremental docking charges based on ships’ fuel efficiency right through to a full-blown maritime carbon market.

Either way, the shipping industry has been so poorly regulated over the years that there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit; making substantial improvements should be child’s play. The Bush administration has the perfect opportunity to simultaneously beat the UN at its own game and make a real difference to the environment. This time, even the EPA has no excuse for dragging its feet.