How 16 largest ships produce as much pollution as all the cars in the world. Is this headline true?

The above statement has been circulating the blogosphere since the UK Daily Mail published an article with this alarming allegation. Is it true? Well… yes and no.

article pollution

Merchant fleet routes courtesy of

This headline came from an article originally posted on 21 November 2009 by Fred Pearce, an author and environmental consultant. The attention grabbing headline is accurate but only partially so in that these 16 container vessels pollute more sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) than all the cars on the planet; however, cars today emit very little of either due to cleaner gas and cleaner running engines and emission systems. The elephant in the room for both ships and cars is CO2, and here the world’s cars are clearly the larger polluter.


Still, at the time Mr. Pearce wrote the article, the maritime industry was not held to the higher emission standards of other industries. Today, the IMO (International Marine Organization) and governmental regulatory authorities have begun new standards to reduce marine emissions. The issue with large ships is that the fuel they use, called bunker fuel, is asphalt like oil sludge. They use it because no one else wants it, it’s cheap and the ships’ large efficient power systems can burn it but not without the cost of excess pollutants.

The environmental problems caused by these emissions are real. SOx and NOx are real nasty byproducts of fossil fuel burning and are largely responsible for acid rain.


However ships are not the worst culprits. From the EPA website: ‘Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is one of a group of highly reactive gasses known as “oxides of sulfur.”  The largest sources of SO2 emissions are from fossil fuel combustion at power plants (73%) and other industrial facilities (20%).  Smaller sources of SO2 emissions include industrial processes such as extracting metal from ore, and the burning of high sulfur containing fuels by locomotives, large ships, and non-road equipment.  SO2 is linked with a number of adverse effects on the respiratory system.’


JE: As you can see, container ships only represent a small percentage of SO2 pollution. New technologies are needed not only for ships but for power plants and industry as well. CO2 must be addressed as well for use to truly help reverse climate change. There is huge opportunity for companies to cost effectively reduce all greenhouse gases from fossil fuel consumption.


Original Article:

Acid Rain Description from the EPA