Published: April 26, 2008

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Something unusual is happening in Swedish waters. Crews docking at the Port of Gothenburg are turning off their engines and plugging into the local power grid rather than burning diesel oil or sulfurous bunker fuel — a thick, black residue left over from refining oil.

Bunker Fuel

“I always knew these extremely dirty bunker fuels were helping produce acid rain that falls so heavily over this part of Sweden,” said Per Lindeberg, the port’s electrical manager and an avid fisherman. “I was very happy when we could switch off the ships.”

Similar high-voltage technologies have been introduced at Zeebrugge in Belgium, and in Los Angeles and Long Beach in California. But as at Gothenburg, only a small fraction of ships are equipped with plugs, so the benefits from shore-side electricity so far have been limited.

And despite the growing availability of cleaner technologies, the shipping industry has made little progress toward becoming greener, even as traffic grows heavier on existing routes and new routes open up in the Arctic. Indeed, the most recent efforts to tackle the problem have met resistance — less from the shipping industry, however, than from the big oil companies that supply the dirty fuel.

Shipping is responsible for about twice the emissions of carbon dioxide as aviation — yet airlines have come under greater criticism. Particles emitted by ships burning heavy bunker fuel, described by some seafarers as “black yogurt” for its consistency, also contain soot that researchers say captures heat when it settles on ice and could be accelerating the melting of the polar ice caps.

Health experts say the particulates worsen respiratory illnesses, cardiopulmonary disorders and lung cancers, particularly among people who live near heavy ship traffic.

Ship engines also produce large quantities of nitrogen, which contribute to the formation of algal blooms at sea. Those use up oxygen when they decompose and create so-called marine dead zones in heavily trafficked waters, like the Baltic Sea.

“The sheer volume of pollutants from shipping has grown exponentially along with the growth of our economies and of global trade,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. “Shipping is just less visible than other industries, so for too long it has slipped to the bottom of the agenda.”

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