Loading a container vessel at the Port of Fremantle, WA.

Loading a container vessel at the Port of Fremantle, WA.

Smoke on the water: ship emissions and air quality

Ship engine exhaust emissions make up more than a quarter of nitrogen oxide emissions generated in the Australian region according to a recently-published study by CSIRO and the Australian Maritime College in Launceston. (3:01)

  • 14 September 2012

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Read more about the Australian shipping emissions.


Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROvod, I’m Glen Paul. When you think about air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions you probably think of fossil fuel, the electrical power plants, and motor vehicles, and while they certainly are major contributors, there are other things out there also leaving their footprint.

Shipping is a major driver in the Australian economy, with over A$200 billion worth of exports passing through Australian Ports every year.  But with these ships comes pollution. A CSIRO study has found that ship engine exhaust emissions make up more than ¼ of nitrogen oxide emissions generated in the Australian region.

Dr Galbally: And it turns out to be quite significant. The nitrogen oxides, about 30 per cent of the total of emissions in the Australian region comes from shipping. These ships travel near the coasts, and come into ports, and for many of our ports we have prevailing onshore winds, and so these pollutants are carried into the urban air sheds, they're mixed with the other pollutants, and contribute to the total load of pollutants that our population is experiencing.

Glen Paul: But itps not only the health implications that are being investigated.

Dr Galbally: These pollutants can also participate in climate processes, particularly in the formation of clouds, and the reflection of solar radiation from particles, and so it’s very important to properly understand what the processes are and how we may be changing the composition of the remote atmosphere for the southern hemisphere.

Glen Paul: To help understand how air pollution can impact a city, CSIRO's Dr Martin Cope and his team are conducting an intensive study into Sydney’s air quality, and modelling the implications for the future.

Dr Cope: What we’re interested in are very, very fine particles, so a tenth to a hundredth the size of a human hair, and they’re so small they basically just stick in the air like they’re in treacle, and when you breathe them in the particles will come all the way in with the airstream into your lungs, and there they can have health impacts.

Glen Paul: Particles can come from manmade sources such as motor vehicles and industry, and from natural sources such as windblown dust and bushfire smoke, and there’s secondary particles which are generated by the chemical reactions of some gaseous pollutants in the atmosphere.

Dr Cope: They can come in all sorts of sizes, so as I was saying, you know, a tenth, to a hundred, to a thousandth the size of a human hair, they can have different chemicals on them which then can lead to different health effects, they can lead to scattering of the light, and they even have climate impacts as well.

Glen Paul: To find out more about CSIRO’s atmospheric research, and to follow us on other social media, log onto www.csiro.au.