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Big polluters: one massive container ship equals 50 million cars


April 23, 2009

15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760m cars

15 of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760m cars

April 23, 2009 The Guardian has reported on new research showing that in one year, a single large container ship can emit cancer and asthma-causing pollutants equivalent to that of 50 million cars. The low grade bunker fuel used by the worlds 90,000 cargo ships contains up to 2,000 times the amount of sulfur compared to diesel fuel used in automobiles. The recent boom in the global trade of manufactured goods has also resulted in a new breed of super sized container ship which consume fuel not by the gallons, but by tons per hour, and shipping now accounts for 90% of global trade by volume.

The title of world’s largest container ship is actually held by eight identical ships owned by Danish shipping line Mærsk. All eight ships are 1300ft (397.7m) long and can carry 15,200 shipping containers around the globe at a steady 25.5 knots (47.2 km/h, 29.3 mph) . The only thing limiting the size of these ships is the Suezmax standard, which is the term used to define the the largest ships capable of transiting the Suez Canal fully loaded. These ships far surpass the Panamax standard (ships that can fit through the Panama Canal), which is limited to ships capable of carrying 5,000 shipping containers.

Not only are shipbuilders resetting the world record for size on a regular basis but so are the diesel engines that propel them. One of the eight longest container ships in the world, the 1,300 ft Emma Mærsk also has the world's largest reciprocating engine. At five storeys tall and weighing 2300 tonnes, this 14 cylinder turbocharged two-stroke monster puts out 84.4 MW (114,800 hp) - up to 90MW when the motor's waste heat recovery system is taken into account. These mammoth engines consume approx 16 tons of fuel per hour or 380 tons per day while at sea.

Unregulated emissions

In international waters ship emissions remains one of the least regulated parts of our global transportation system. The fuel used in ships is waste oil, basically what is left over after the crude oil refining process. It is the same as asphalt and is so thick that when cold it can be walked upon . It's the cheapest and most polluting fuel available and the world's 90,000 ships chew through an astonishing 7.29 million barrels of it each day, or more than 84% of all exported oil production from Saudi Arabia, the worlds largest oil exporter.

Shipping is by far the biggest transport polluter in the world. There are 760 million cars in the world today emitting approx 78,599 tons of Sulphur Oxides (SOx) annually. The world's 90,000 vessels burn approx 370 million tons of fuel per year emitting 20 million tons of Sulphur Oxides. That equates to 260 times more Sulphur Oxides being emitted by ships than the worlds entire car fleet. One large ship alone can generate approx 5,200 tonnes of sulphur oxide pollution in a year, meaning that 15 of the largest ships now emit as much SOx as the worlds 760 million cars.

South Korea's STX shipyard says it has designed a ship to carry 22,000 shipping containers that would be 450 meters long and there are already 3,693 new ship builds on the books for ocean going vessels over 150 meters in length due over the next three years. The amount of air pollution just these new ships will put out when launched is equal to having another 29 billion cars on the roads.

The UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) released a report in 2007 saying a 10% reduction in fuel burning was possible on existing ships and 30-40% possible for new ships but the technology is largely unused, as the regulations are largely voluntary.

Nuclear future?

Oddly enough there is never any mention of alternative power sources such as nuclear power. Nuclear marine propulsion has been in widespread naval use for over 50 years starting in 1955. There are 150 ships in operation that use nuclear propulsion with most being submarines, although they range from ice breakers to aircraft carriers. A Nimitz class supercarrier has more than twice as much power (240,000 hp, 208 MW) as the largest container ship diesel engines ever built and is capable of continuously operating for 20 years without refueling (some French Rubis-class submarines can go 30 years between refueling). The U.S. Navy has accumulated over 5,400 "reactor years" of accident-free experience, and operates more than 80 nuclear-powered ships.

Airborne pollution from these giant diesel engines has been linked to sickness in coastal residents near busy shipping lanes. Up to 60,000 premature deaths a year worldwide are said to be as a result of particulate matter emissions from ocean-going ship engines. The IMO, which regulates shipping for 168 member nations, last October enacted new mandatory standards for phasing in cleaner engine fuel. By 2020, sulphur in marine fuel must be reduced by 90% although this new distilled fuel may be double the price of current low grade fuels.

Paul Evans

Via: Guardian.co.uk.

See this link for an informative overview of global shipping emissions from Glenn klith Andersen.


Ships emissions can be strictly regulated in harbors and coastal waters by any nation. If the US would limit such ship emissions in our ports and harbors by fining operators for violations (easily taken by Ramen spectroscopy or other non-intrusive means) then ships could carry clean fuel to use near our shores and dirty fuel to spew filthy emissions way out to sea. It would not be a perfect solution, but it might save the largest number of people from sickness and death in our ports.


Just a thought... if ten smaller ships were used instead wouldn\'t that be more pollution, more waste and more fuel used?

Sam Ballin

It\'s unregulated emissions arent it\'s most serious faults- the most serious, is that this ship loads full in China of all matter of their goods and sails to USA- then returns empty- what does tell you about the future of our world?

Darrell Tierney

Interesting article, particularly the last 2 paragraphs. I don\'t have a problem with Nuclear power, just the human factor, which includes the design, operation and profit/safety dynamic. Given what\'s happened in Japan this month, there will be a move away from the consideration of nuclear power, for better or worse. Maybe things like Thorium reactors have a future? I\'d be happy to see it if certain design and safety standards can be achieved, including automatic sealing and entombing of reactors in the case of catastrophes.


Finally the real culprits are show for what they truly are - ocean and air fouling money generators for a few wealthy families and corporations. Failure to remedy this issue makes the WTO and WHO shallow and powerless contraptions that only approximate effective trade and health entities. The seas are not lawless expanses of wilderness to be exploited by a few at the great cost of many.



The article draws many comparisons between the amount of sulphur oxides produced by these massive container ships and those of cars across the globe. However I would be interested to know the levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases that would contribute to climate change. What proportion of global climate change could be attributed to these massive containers in comparison to the 760 million cars on the planet (at the time of writing)?

Another point to raise, if shipping accounts for 90% of transportation of goods around the world and phasing in cleaner fuel which would double the price of low grade fuel currently in use - imagine the impact on transportation costs and the knock on effect on global food prices and goods. To my good friend Darrell Tierney, pherhaps this would help in some fashion to rebalance amercias terms of trade with china and reduce its trade deficit.

Mattimus x0x


This is completely astounding to me. I\'ve just become a huge fan of maritime nuclear energy.


A few things.

Maersk actually does a lot of things to make their ships more green. Partly of course to save on fuel costs but also to pollute less and their fleet of ships is a very modern one. Those massive ships with their massive engines are super efficient with more than fifty percent of the energy used going to move the ship which compared to fx. car engines is way more efficient (in a car something like 80% of the energy consumed is wasted).

What TogetherinParis mentions with regards to burning cleaner fuels near city ports is being done by Maersk (and likely also by some of the other big names in shipping).

Maersk has bigger ships on order with something like 20%.

Nuclear propulsion may have it\'s good sides but there is a whole range of issues. Safety, waste, price and uran is also not just something you dig up there is environment issues with that process as well. Also the safety thing is not just about possible accidents but imagine how big a terror target such a ship would be. The military nuclear vessels sort of come with their own terror protection but civilian vessels would need protection by armed guards maybe even escort vessels!

Clarification: I\'m not affiliated with Maersk I just happen to live a stone throw away from their HQ and I have also been on board the Emma Maersk when she was introduced (it\'s a huge ship that makes even large buildings seem small).


This article was published in 2009. How does it come that we never see this on our front page news? I wasn\'t aware of it until I just noticed this old article. It seems as if nobody cares. Why do we bother about buying cleaner or green cars if these giant polluters simply make it appear as not relevant whatever we do to improve our environment.

Geert Kruiter

Thanks for the article - I have long wondered just how much fuel was burnt keeping our jobs in Asia while devastating the environment.

I knew it was a lot as I served aboard the USS Ranger, a diesel fueled super carrier. At hard steam we blew through 230,000 gallons a day in the 1970\'s.


SOx comprise a number of compounds with one of them - Sulfur dioxide - being "a major air pollutant and has significant impacts upon human health" (Wikipedia). It can influence the habitat suitability for plant communities as well as animal life and is associated with increased respiratory symptoms and disease, difficulty in breathing, and premature death (ibid.) So why not to look at SOx as a benchmark of pollution a means of transportation makes? If not us, our children will pay for our excesses


It's all part of our quest for more plastic junk made in China. Don't blame the ships - it's us - the consumers. When we break the habit of buying more and more stuff, then they will stop shipping it. Easy really!


Ripp700, blaming the consumers is a dead end. As Maggie Klein put it in a recent piece: Every day we are fooled into thinking that climate change is a problem caused by individuals and solvable by individuals is another day we fail to move towards large-scale, coordinated, societal action. We fail to exert our influence on the fate of the only planet we have. http://tinyurl.com/gw-emotions


A similar data analysis should be added based on the Air-Transport industry. They are also big polluters. If we add the results to the big-ship phenomena, we are sure to say humanity as a kind is doomed to death SOON. Our planet can not resist the impact of such irresponsible behavior. Why is this fact not on the front lines of all news? Are we really suicidal as an specie? Or just ignorant passengers on this ship called Earth, not clear of its sad destination. Ready to kill all sorts of life and destroy our planet along the way? What hope can we have for our grandchildren? The article is well written and should be reproduced out loud. Max

Max Fdez

There is a recent movement to convert many marine craft, ocean going as well as inland shipping, to LNG.

Major marine engine manufacturers such as Wartsila are well along in championing such solutions.


Standard disclaimer I have no connection what so ever with Wartsila, I have just been following this trend for a few years now.

It is my hope that ship yards such as the numerous idle ones in Greece and perhaps defense contracting shipyards in the US and elsewhere could be converted to doing conversions on existing ships.

Gary Tucker

@SamBallin. You´re right-fuel/teu/nauticmile is by far better with the Tripple E class than any other. Same thing as with planes- the Airbus 380 with app 800 seats also boasts the lowest fuelburn per seat/mile.

Bernhard Brunsgaard

I think it's disgusting that the transport that provides that carrying backbone for our world is the dirtiest fuel burners around. They MUST be made to clean up their act as the rest of the world knows is right!

Always the corps making the most profits want to be the polluters and the most unsafe with regards to other chemicals etc. We are so advanced and could easily supply these huge ships with hybrid Wind, Solar & Bio-Oils to offer a super clean and efficient form of energy. Then the ship could also carry much less fuel and therefore carry more cargo to increase the overall profit per trip, end of. I can ALWAYS reverse their negative, dirty/greedy view of doing business, which is not the BEST way to run any/every business.


What ever happened to putting sails on large ships? I have seen articles in the past that said adding computer controlled, hydraulically actuated sails dramatically reduces fuel burn.


The solution is to stop purchasing outside of your local community. Think Globally, shop Locally.


Wow, old article, first time I've seen these numbers, I figured they'd be depressing :(

Craig Jennings

The world's shipping emits the same SO2 as a decent volcano. The earth spits stuff out and has been for billions of years. It doesn't mean we shouldn't change but we also shouldn't delude ourselves that our time on this planet is probably going to be short-lived and perilous. Shipping hopefully can covert to using fuel cells and electric powered ships pretty soon, but the SO2 will still come out of volcanic eruptions and we are way overdue for some real doozies.


Sometimes … the hubris regarding "oh no, pollution!" outweighs the actual quantification of harm.

In this case, SO2 and SO3 emissions from high-sulfur marine bunker oil fuel. Someone here likened it to that emitted by a volcano.

Here's the difference… SO2 and SO3 emitted by volcanoes are most often lofted to the stratosphere by the explosive dynamics of the volcano. There, SO2 + O2 catalyze under UV light exposure to SO2, which precipitates to a fine white "fog". Extremely small particles, it stays up there for years.

In contrast, the SO2 (mostly) emitted by a bunker-oil burner stays in the lowest 3 km of the atmosphere, until washed out by fog and rain. The persistence time - depending on the weather zone - ranges from days to months. There is also no mechanism to loft it to the stratosphere.

I am NOT advocating that we just "look the other way", but rather, that we don't get our knickers in a total twist because of some really crappy hyped up numbers that don't actually model "the problem".

Robert Lynch

It takes 5,000 miles of long haul ocean, truck or rail shipping for energy saving light bulbs to get to markets in the US. It comes from polluted factories in China where workers work with mercury in the manufacturing area on the floor. See: The saga of dirty energy and the dark side of free trade ... http://tapsearch.com/dirty-energy-saving/id5.html/ It should also be noted the trade deficit has broken many records since free trade was consummated in 1993-94. Since 1975, the trade deficit represents more than 8 trillion dollars in value lost forever. Also, the value of workers and labor has been degraded and deflated which represents trillions of dollars more in value lost forever in the U.S. This value is also a better money standard than all the play money created out of nothing by the Federal Reserve. See more at http://tapsearch.com/tapartnews http://tapsearch.com/flatworld

Ray Tapajna

Yet these must intrinsically be the most efficient way to move goods. I wonder how costly it would be to improve the fuel?


Whilst a fleet of nuclear powered container ships might appear to be a neat solution we should be aware of the law of unexpected consequences.

Sulfur dioxide released from ships smokestacks acts as cloud condensation nuclei. These produce clouds with a high albedo (reflectivity) that reflect solar energy back into space.

It may well turn out that these "ship tracks" are responsible for a pronounced cooling of the Earth.

"Man made cloud factories saving the Earth", not something you're likely to hear from the IPCC any time soon I'm guessing.

Pat Pending

The math does not validate the statement. 50 million cars drive 12,000 miles a year each or 600 billion miles. divided by 25 miles per gallon and the cars consume 24 billion gallons a year. Multiply by 7 lbs per gallon then divide by 2,000 lbs per ton to determine the cars consume 84 miilion tons of gas. Divide by 365 to get 260,000 tons a day. Although each ship can burn 380 tons of oil a day, they do not. They are in port loading and unloading more than they are in transit and they are never at full speed. Assuming a 50% duty cycle, there is no way 190 tons of oil equals the 260,000 tons of gas consumed by 50 million cars daily. I do agree with the nuclear naval option...unfortunately, no country would allow those nuclear reactors in their harbors.

James Barbour

fake study using false data ... complete BS ...

Kaiser Derden

That is the only hope for Asian countries to continue to send their night soil to the U.S. as additive manufacturing (SLA, FDM etc.) which is flexible robotic manufacturing of dimensionally complex products - multiplies. The end is in sight when America pulls the feeding tube from its mouth and picks up a spoon. Just subterranean hydrocarbons and ever cheaper additive manufacturing. That's all we need. Humans and not robots will be needed in abundance to deploy that.

Bob Foster
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