Air quality experts urge Spanish government to support Emission Control Area in the Mediterranean


The German organisation, Control Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (henceforth NABU), together with Ecologists in Action, have carried out measurements of atmospheric emissions from sea traffic in the Strait of Gibraltar and Barcelona, finding that the levels of pollution in both areas are up to 70 times higher than the base level of pollution in most urban areas.

Atmospheric pollution produced by shipping is a serious threat to human health, the environment and the climate. The European Commission estimates that each year, 50,000 Europeans die prematurely due to atmospheric pollution produced by boats, especially in terms of particulate material, as well as sulphur and nitrogen oxides plus tropospheric ozone.

It’s well known that shipping uses fuels containing high levels of sulphur, whose waste gases are respiratory irritants and are thus highly dangerous for human health. At present, maritime transport contributes 2% of all global emissions of carbon dioxide, according to the latest data produced by the EU, and it’s forseen that this figure will increase significantly in the coming years.

However, in comparison to road or industry transport, there is virtually nothing being done to effectively reduce emissions in this sector. According to the National Inventory of Atmospheric Emissions, just published by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment, international shipping contributed 40% of pollution by nitrous oxides, 44% of sulphur oxides and 22% of PM2.5 fine particulates (those smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) relative to the overall state figures for Spain in 2016.

That coastal navigation, such as that of large passenger cruisers, negatively impacts on human populations is more than proved. Cruise ships are those with the highest emissions of greenhouse gases per kilometre travelled. In addition, passenger cruises begin usually begin with consumers arriving at the cruise port by plane, therefore adding between 10 and 30% to the total emissions produced by cruises.

This dangerously elevated level of air contamination created by maritime traffic has been confirmed by measurements carried out this week by NABU and Ecologists in Action, in the Straits of Gibraltar and in Barcelona, where pollution levels are up to 70 per cent higher than the normal base level of city pollution.

In order to try and address the problem of these extreme pollution levels produced by maritime traffic, coastal states in northern Europe have drawn up agreements to designate the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the English Channel as Emission Control Areas. With this change to the use of cleaner fuels, the regulation ECA (and including sulphur, SECA) has achieved an immediate improvement of up to 50% in air quality since the year 2015, and has produced socio-economic benefits amounting to thousands of millions of euros.

For this reason, Ecologists in Action are urging the Spanish government to join up with France, which has led the drive to create Sulphur Emissions Control Areas, to radically limit the entrance of highly polluting shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. To this end, Ecologists have invited, not just those responsible for air quality at Ministry level, but also leading air quality technicians from Andalusia, Murcia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Catalonia, to participate in the International Mediterranean Shipping Conference – Reducing air pollution from ships in the Mediterranean Sea. The conference is organised by France Nature Environnement, the French Environment Ministry and NABU, with the colaboration of the alliance of enviromental NGOs to which Ecologists in Action belongs.

“We can’t accept any excuse that continues to delay a more strict regulation over shipping emissions in southern Europe,” says María Garcia of Ecologists in Action. “The most important navegation routes from Asia cross the Mediterranean, and it is expected that this navegation traffic will increase by some 250% by the year 2050.”