The UKâ€™s largest 40 commercial ports are responsible for around 75% of the freight that arrives into and leaves the country by sea. To put that into perspective, that equates to around seven out of every ten cars manufactured in the UK, and around half of the food that ends up on our tables.
But, with such a large volume of goods entering and exiting the UKâ€™s shores through these major transport hubs, keeping the environmental impact of operations to a minimum becomes difficult.
Air quality is among the chief environmental challenges associated with the maritime sector, in particular around ports. Added to diesel emissions from ships, ports also have a significant contribution of emissions from road and rail freight â€“ as well as dockside non-road mobile machinery and static equipment such as cranes and lifts, vital to the movement of goods.
According to a report published late last year by the governmentâ€™s Air Quality Expert Group (AQEG), shipping-alone makes a â€˜significantâ€™ contribution to UK nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), PM2.5 and PM10 emissions â€“ which can contribute to adverse human health effects.
A further study by consultancy Ricardo, published this week, suggests that emissions from shipsâ€™ auxiliary engines in ports accounts for around 11,000 tonnes of NOx in the atmosphere, up to 270 tonnes of particulate matter and 520 tonnes of sulphur dioxide.
Faced with this problem, the UKâ€™s nine major port operators, running large terminals such as Southampton, Felixstowe, Tilbury and the Port of London and represented by the UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG), are seeking to lead the debate on port-side air quality management.
Tim Morris, chief executive of the UKMPG, spoke to airqualitynews.com about the challenges associated with tackling air quality at ports, and how his organisationâ€™s members are working towards a clean air goal.
â€œThere is no doubt about the fact that growing your port economically in a sustainable way has to go hand-in-hand to growing it in an environmentally sustainable way and air quality is very much a part of that,â€ he explained.
â€œAcross the board there is a lot of activity that is going on throughout the port sector as people take this much more seriously, which is producing significant improvements on the key pollutants.â€
To date, no major study of the impact of operations at ports has been carried out. UKMPG has sought to bridge this gap by analysing data from the UK National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI) to assess the regional impact its members may be having on UK emissions overall, although more detailed study is still required.
â€œThere is an across-the-board improvement. That is people improving their processes, becoming more aware of this as an issue and managing more towards it and then also feeling the benefit of things like low sulphur zones in the North Sea and improvements in diesel road freight.â€ Morris suggests, adding: â€œWe know there is more to do and people are focused on that.â€
According to UKPMG, the results gleaned from the analysis of the NAEI data between 2010 and 2015 suggest that port areas have seen reductions of major pollutants including NOx, PM 10 & PM2.5 of up to 20%, and a reduction in SOx of around half (50%). In each instance UKPMG claims that reductions in emissions have occurred faster in port areas than the average rate of change seen across the UK.
Growth in the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as an alternative to heavy fuel oils is seen as one of the potential answers to air pollution in the maritime industry â€“ with the Port of Immingham, run by Associated British Ports, among the first terminals in the UK to bunker a ship with LNG in 2017.
â€œYouâ€™ve seen the likes of Maersk and Carnival in the latest rounds of their vessel commissioning specify LNG capability,â€ Morris notes, adding that it is the large shipping lines that tend to influence demand for new infrastructure at ports.
â€œAt the moment UK ports have LNG, it tends to be a niche part of the operation and it is generally tankerised at the moment.
â€œAs things change you can see the port infrastructure changing as well. In the same way that as ships have got bigger the ports have invested to have the infrastructure to handle that. You will probably expect or anticipate that as the propulsion systems for ships change that the ports will adapt to be able to service those kinds of vessels as well so there is a symbiotic link between the shipping industry and ports which inevitably starts with big ship owners.
â€œWe are starting to see that now and they are coming to the port industry and saying we need LNG infrastructure.â€
Other projects highlighted by UKMPG include Associated British Portsâ€™ investment in a fleet of fully-electric vehicles at Port of Southampton â€“ a city where air pollution limits have been breached consistently since 2010 (see airqualitynews.com story). On the logistics side Tilburyâ€™s London Container Terminal has launched an integrated vehicle booking system â€“ designed to improve the flow of traffic on the port.
On UKMPGâ€™s role in the management of air quality in the UK, Morris says that the organisation is keen to engage with government and other stakeholders on the issue. Ensuring that policies around freight and transport are not developed on a â€˜siloedâ€™ basis by government is also a key consideration for the group.
â€œThe focus is to make sure that the broader UK knows that this is an issue that major ports acknowledge and that they are committed to play a part,â€ he says. â€œWe also need to be involved in what is the overall solution that delivers better air quality.
â€œPorts are integrated into a broader piece of thinking about what the freight landscape is, as well as this global picture about what the maritime landscape is.â€
On the need for â€˜joined-upâ€™ policy making, he says: â€œThe transport and freight and logistics solution-thinking needs to be just that, itâ€™s not that it needs to just be about the maritime, road or rail sector.
â€œThese things interact and we need to be finding a way of operating, measuring and planning on that integrated basis. We are ready to do our bit but it is part of the puzzle and we need to think about how the puzzle is solved.â€
UK Major Ports Group