Container ship near shoreline; maritime trade

Maritime shipping is the lifeblood of our economy. The device you are using right now, the chair you are sitting on, and the clothes you are wearing likely traveled by cargo ship. In fact, 90% of all traded goods are transported by water.

And, the volume of maritime trade is expected to double by 2050. Indeed, dwindling sea ice is expected to open up more routes in the Arctic, furthering the growth trend.

Ocean shipping is economical, but what impact does it have on our beloved planet? Unfortunately, maritime freight has a significant effect on air and water quality across the globe.

Air and Water Pollution From Maritime Trade

The marine shipping sector emits 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. Increasingly, the global shipping industry is getting pressure from environmental groups to help slow climate change. Because it is an international activity, there is ambiguity around calculating the emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. The International Maritime Organization governs shipping and aims to reduce emissions by at least 50% by 2050. Unfortunately, critics say this is too little too late.

Although many of the ships are relatively efficient, 80% of them use heavy fuel oil, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. This fuel is attractive because it is cheap, but it has many harmful effects on the environment. As a result, the United Nations shipping agency banned heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, but critics say many loopholes exist.

This fuel contains a lot of sulfur, thus contributing to acid rain as well as carbon emissions. If tankers that carry heavy fuel oil leak, it has devastating impacts on wildlife. According to the G7, it is “the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment.”

Also, ships release ballast water, gray water, and black water into the oceans, contaminating waters. International shipping is also responsible for introducing invasive species that live in the water.

Air Quality Issues Disproportionately Affect Communities of Color

Another grave environmental concern associated with international shipping is the air quality issues around ports as ships sit idle, tugboats push or pull ships into port, and trucks transport goods from the docks.

Often, Black and Latinx communities near ports disproportionately suffer the health consequences. One such neighborhood is Barrio Logan near the Port of San Diego, with some of California’s highest diesel pollution rates.

Sadly, these emissions are causing lung cancer, chronic heart disease, and asthma, which plague the community. In fact, the asthma hospitalization rate is roughly 2.5 times the national average in Barrio Logan. Yet, the port is not the only source of air pollution, due largely to hazardous zoning regulations allowing for mixed-use neighborhoods to have industrial properties adjacent to homes.

Historically, some of the most contaminated neighborhoods in the United States are communities of color, causing grave health issues to residents. The South Bay area is located near the Port of San Diego and is primarily a low-income community of color, raising environmental justice concerns.

Many port-side communities are disproportionately saddled with the air pollution associated with global trade and U.S. distribution. Yet, the Port of Los Angeles has dramatically reduced airborne pollutants recently, sparking optimism for positive change. Ultimately, the electrification of transportation will help reduce emissions, such as electric trucks and tugboats. In fact, the first fully electric harbor tugboat will serve the Port of San Diego in mid-2023. However, even though electrification of transportation will be a big step in the right direction, the issue with overconsumption of goods remains.

Personal Actions to Slow Global Trade

Although reducing the pollution from international trade is a complex issue, we can take steps to mitigate the problem. Supporting policies limiting emissions associated with transportation and ports helps protect local communities and slow climate change.

We all support maritime freight through our purchases, so creating different habits helps reduce the use of these services. Buying locally produced goods is an excellent way to sidestep this issue. Although many of us think of food when buying locally, this can also include clothing, furniture, building materials, household goods, and even automobiles.

Likewise, purchasing used items helps reduce the need for manufacturers to make and ship new goods long distances. Thrift stores, Facebook marketplace, garage sales, Freecycle, ThredUp, and Craigslist are excellent resources. Also, donating or selling gently used items is an excellent idea. Finally, repairing goods whenever possible instead of buying new ones also reduces waste and saves money.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.