Calls for UK Government to tackle pollution from shipping with an Emissions Control Area (ECA) in UK waters

To cut the impact of shipping’s emissions on air pollution, climate, biodiversity and human health, the UK Government must extend the Emissions Control Area (ECA)

Yesterday, Opportunity Green, an environmental NGO working to advance a just and equitable decarbonisation of the shipping sector – along with Transport & Environment, Green Alliance, the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), Fundación Ecología y Desarrollo ECODES, ZERO, and the Clean Arctic Alliance – delivered an open letter to the UK Government, including: the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP; the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Mark Harper MP; and the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Rt Hon Claire Coutinho MP. It calls for the Government to expand its Emissions Control Area (ECA) in UK waters and collaborate with neighbouring coastal states to establish an ECA beyond UK waters.

An ECA is a designated sea area in which emission standards are put in place to prevent, reduce and control shipping’s harmful emissions of Nitrous Oxides (NOx) or Sulphur Oxides (SOx), and indirectly limit Particulate Matter (PM). NOx emissions cause significant ecological damage through eutrophication and acidification, damaging marine ecosystems. SOx emissions lead to severe health impacts, disproportionately impacting coastal and port communities, which include heightened occurrence of respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Once released in the atmosphere, SOx can also lead to acid rain, which impacts crops, forests and aquatic species and contributes to the acidification of the oceans.

The general public and our ecosystems pay the price for under-regulated shipping emissions. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs estimates that the PM2.5 released from shipping alone costs the UK £1.5 billion annually in health effects. Whereas, according to the UK Government commissioned research, expanding the ECA could bring economic benefits of up to £414.7 million.

An ECA currently exists in UK waters to the east and south in the English Channel and the North Sea, in which a sulphur cap of 0.1% and a NOx limit for newbuild ships (built after 2021) apply. As there are already existing ECAs in the North Sea, elsewhere in Europe, and in North America, most ships will already be equipped to comply with the regulations. A forthcoming study from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates that 88% of ships sailing in the North Atlantic, including UK waters, also sail in other existing or proposed ECAs. It will therefore be easy to comply with an extended ECA and add minimal costs to any journey.

Pre-existing ECAs also provide promising results for reductions in air polluting emissions. Since its implementation, the North American ECA reduced hourly Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) rates in port areas by 62% and is expected to reduce overall SO2 vessel emissions by 90% in Canadian waters.

The evidence is clear. Expanding an ECA to cover all UK waters could help to:

  • Reduce air pollution
  • Encourage the uptake of cleaner fuels
  • Reduce the overall climate impact of shipping’s emissions
  • Have positive impacts on human health
  • Protect marine ecosystems.

Opportunity Green and the above-listed organisations have responded to a UK Government call for evidence, in addition to the joint letter, to detail these benefits of expanding an ECA in UK waters, and, in collaboration with other coastal states, beyond UK waters.

Opportunity Green Policy Officer, Blánaid Sheeran, commented:

“Extending the ECA is a key opportunity for the UK to lead on both ambitious air pollution prevention and shipping decarbonisation policies, while also taking steps to prioritise public health and marine biodiversity. The shipping industry currently pushes its negative externalities onto the general taxpayer, this must end now. The sector is almost untaxed, which means it can and should take responsibility for its emissions.

It is also increasingly the case that ships passing through non-ECA UK waters will be well-equipped to meet ECA standards already in place in, for example, the Baltic and North Seas. It does not make sense to allow these ships to revert to emitting harmful pollutants when sailing through non-ECA designated UK waters.

_Expanding the ECA is a fair and easy-to-implement solution which will have a multitude of clear benefits. This is an opportunity for the government that must not go missed.” _