Malta – The Air We Breathe

Strange as it may seem, the majority of people have forgotten or do not understand what keeps them alive. It must be a sort of amnesia or a type of stupor. Politicians in particular, please listen up. We live because we breathe clean air, drink fresh water, eat healthy food, and have shelter from the harsher elements of nature, failing which, other things being equal, we would have shorter lives.

Clean air contains 20% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, 0.03% carbon dioxide and under 2% other gases and water vapour. This is the ideal composition of air that maintains the fine balance in nature and is what we should be inhaling.

The air we exhale contains 15% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, 5% carbon dioxide and under 2% other gases and water vapour. Our respiratory system facilitates a 5% exchange of gasses in our lungs and cells. Oxygen is absorbed and this fuels our living processes. Carbon dioxide is released as a waste product.

We would only survive three minutes without breathing. It is that composition of air that allows for just that absorption of oxygen and that release of carbon dioxide that works for us and keeps us amongst the living.

A change in the composition of the air we inhale or the introduction of particles or other gasses is air pollution. The adage “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” does not apply in the case of air. With air pollution the rule is “what does not kill you now, will kill you later”.

In 2017, 203 cruise liners emitted 62 kilotonnes (62 million kilograms) of sulphur oxide (SOX), 155 Kt of nitrogen oxide (NOX), 10 Kt of particulate matter (PM) and 10,286 Kt of carbon dioxide whilst in European waters. PM is solid or liquid particles suspended in air. Most of these emission took place in the Mediterranean. These cruise ships emitted twenty times more disease-causing SOX in European seas than all of Europe’s 260+ million passenger vehicles.

This was revealed in June 2019 by the Brussel’s based NGO Transport & Environment in a study called ‘One Corporation to Pollute Them All’. The report also expresses concern about the cruise liners’ NOX and PM emissions. The report recommends zero emissions when ships are in port, leading up to zero emission propulsion in EU territorial waters.

Marine fuel is less refined, and the pollution emission standards for ships are lest strict, when compared to other modes of transport, such as motor vehicles. Additionally pollution from ships is airborne and therefore pollutes over very large areas.  SOX, NOX and PM in the air increase human health risks causing pre-mature deaths from lung cancer, cardiovascular (heart) disease and lung immune system disorders. Air pollution causes other health problems, such as childhood asthma..

Cruise ships spend anything up to 12 hours in port. 105 cruise ships berthing in Barcelona emitted 5 times the amount of SOX than the city’s 559 thousand passenger cars.  In Lisbon 115 cruise ships emitted 3.5 times the amount of SOX than the city’s 375 thousand passenger cars.

The port emissions statistic for Malta was not present in the charts. We however know that 83 cruise ships visited Malta in 2017 and the number of licensed vehicles in Malta was 372 thousand. A fair estimate based on Lisbon would be that the cruise ships visiting Malta in 2017 emitted, whilst in port, 2.5 time the SOX emitted by Malta’s entire car fleet. In total the same 83 cruise ships emitted, in and out of port as they sailed along Malta’s coastline, 503 thousand kilograms of SOX which is 145 times that emitted by Malta’s entire passenger car fleet. The equivalent ratios for PM and NOX in Malta were 30% and 73% respectively. In 2020 new marine sulphur emission standards will come into force in the EU – these will supposedly reduce SOX emissions in Maltese waters from 145 times to 51 times the SOX emitted by the country’s entire passenger car fleet – should we feel comforted by this?

The report concludes that cruise ships emit “vast amounts of air pollution” and that “ports are exposed to high amounts of SOX and PM from ships” and that this is “of special concern given that the main cruise passenger terminals are close to densely populated cities”.

There are solutions for pollution in ports such shore-side electricity which would have ships switching off their engines whilst in port and connecting to the local electricity grid. The Grimaldi shipping group have commissioned 12 hybrid cargo vessels that will switch to Lithium ion batteries to guarantee zero emissions in port.

Faig Abbasov, shipping policy manager of Transport & Environment, said “Luxury cruise ships are floating cities powered by some of the dirtiest fuel possible. Cities are rightly banning dirty diesel cars but they are giving a free pass to cruise companies that spew out toxic fumes that do immeasurable harm both to those on board and on nearby shores. This is unacceptable.

He concludes “There are enough mature technologies to clean up cruise ships. Shore-side electricity can help cut in-port emissions, batteries are a solution for shorter distances and hydrogen can power even the biggest cruise ships. The cruise sector are apparently not willing to make the shift voluntarily, so we need governments to step in and mandate zero emissions standards.

Around 85,000 tankers and cargo ships pass through the Sicily – Malta channel annually. When the wind is from the north west, which is 70% of the time, the pollution that comes our way on a daily basis is equivalent to many tens of old Marsa power stations. The Marsa power station used to be known as ‘the cancer factory’.

Air pollution measurements taken in Malta’s Grand Harbour in 2018, with three cruise ships in berth,  revealed that particulate matter pollution was 50 times that expected and 10 times that found in Malta’s most traffic congested roads.

European studies have also shown that air pollution in Malta causes the premature death of around 600 people every single year. A conservative estimate converts this to 4,500 years of lost life – does anybody care?

The pollution produced by ships berthed at the Malta Freeport in the south of the island and by cargo ships and tankers anchored offshore is another air pollution problem we do not talk about.

The aviation industry is also a huge polluter. 43,000 aircraft arrive and depart from Malta annually.  This implies that all these aircraft are landing and taking off and flying in close proximity to the ground over large tracts of Malta and Gozo.  Our country is being showered on average 118 times a day with toxic emissions. The main pollutants emitted by aircraft engines are carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, unburnt hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and soot. To my knowledge the extent of this pollution and its effect on the health of Maltese people has never been properly assessed.

Malta needs a coherent and urgent strategy to eliminate this air pollution. Remember the finely balanced 5% oxygen to carbon dioxide exchange that keeps us alive – that is real. All the reasons we use to justify air pollution are just mental constructs we need to grow out of, fast.

Article published in the Sunday Times of Malta, 22nd September 2019