Larger ships mostly burn “bunker” fuel, a key source of pollutants such as sulphur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

Dr Bevan Marten is a Senior Lecturer in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Law, specialising in maritime and transport law. He is scathing about the damage those gleaming white cruise ships are doing to the environment.

New Zealand’s lack of action over air pollution from shipping is an international embarrassment. This is true of both the country’s commitment to addressing global climate change and the safeguarding of local air quality. Walking along Auckland’s waterfront, that gleaming white cruise ship may look spotless but the fumes coming out of its funnel might be anything but. It’s time to tell the Government to get serious.

Larger ships mostly burn “bunker” fuel, a grade of oil closer to Marmite than anything the local service station will pour you. It’s also a key source of pollutants such as sulphur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

Sulphur dioxide in particular creates a risk to human health, despite not having the telltale smog we associate with the problems faced in cities like Beijing. And while we have largely removed sulphur dioxide emissions from road vehicles and some industries, shipping remains a major source of this pollutant.

The global community has long acknowledged this issue. In 1997, countries agreed to Annex VI of the International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known as MARPOL, short for marine pollution). In addition to rules improving ship engine efficiency, this included a promise to reduce the maximum sulphur content of ships’ fuel to 3.5 percent in 2012 and 0.5 percent in 2020. Between 2006 and 2014, special emission control areas covering much of Northern Europe and North America entered into force, bringing sulphur content there down to just 0.1 percent.

Although 86 other countries are party to the Annex VI agreement, New Zealand has never signed up. This makes us a real outlier internationally. The only other OECD countries in this position are Iceland, Israel and Mexico. The only other countries in the South Pacific Commission to ignore it are Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

New Zealand’s official position to date has been that we are too small to worry about air pollution from ships. But the assumption that other countries will look after this issue for us is unrealistic. Ships can alternate between several fuel tanks. Without laws implementing Annex VI, there is nothing to stop a ship’s operator saving a significant amount of money by using cheaper bunker fuel on the New Zealand leg of a longer voyage. It is the inspections carried out in ports that provide the real “teeth” for international rules of this kind.

Not only does the current position underplay the human health concerns associated with sulphur dioxide emissions, it weakens New Zealand’s international credibility.

Ongoing Annex VI meetings are being used by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as the vehicle for discussions around greenhouse gas emissions from shipping more generally. New Zealand is participating in these IMO meetings, but risks being called out for hypocrisy.

It is hardly credible for New Zealand to argue for higher standards when it has not signed up to the widely accepted piece of international law currently governing the issue under discussion. And without signing up to Annex VI, we lack a vote at the IMO emission meetings.

There is also an economic risk to New Zealand if it remains outside Annex VI. Other countries have proposed regulating shipping emissions by way of financial mechanisms based on the distance a ship travels. New Zealand’s geographic position makes us vulnerable to such an approach. We need a strong voice at the table to argue for solutions that target polluters, not isolated consumers in the Pacific.

The arguments for New Zealand’s ratification of Annex VI are therefore not just principled ones associated with international obligations towards the climate. The move would have practical benefits, both in addressing the issue of clean air and in giving New Zealand more sway at the international level.

The growing number of cruise ship visits, and significant increases in ambient sulphur dioxide and particulate levels in the vicinity of ports, have highlighted the issue of air pollution from shipping in New Zealand. Ports of Auckland recently raised the prospect of requiring cruise ships to use shore-based electricity. Many cruise ships visiting our shores already have abatement technology on board that reduces their emissions—but they are not required to use it here.

The time has come for a central government response to the wider issue of shipping emissions, with the long overdue ratification of Annex VI. A waterfront stroll should entail fresh sea air, not sulphurous fumes.

Dr Bevan Marten is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Victoria University of Wellington and a Partner at the firm of Izard Weston.

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