Air Pollution & Marine Shipping

#sustainableshipping #airpollution #gettingtozero

While essential to the world’s economy and well-being, the commercial marine shipping industry is a major contributor to global air pollution and without action, the industry’s emissions are expected to increase.

These emissions can harm human health and our environment.

New regulations and practical initiatives are planned or in force to reduce the amount of air pollution produced by ships.

This site’s purpose is to share objective information about the impacts of air pollution from the marine shipping industry – including the types of air pollution ships emit, how these emissions are harmful, and what’s being done to reduce them – and to encourage informed conversations about these issues.

This site was created by Clear Seas, a Canadian not-for-profit organization that provides independent fact-based information to enable governments, industry, and the public to make informed decisions on marine shipping issues.

Marine Shipping’s Impact on World Air Pollution

Ships move more than 80% of the world’s goods. When compared to other forms of transportation, marine shipping is the most energy-efficient way to move large volumes of cargo.

Like all other forms of transportation that burn hydrocarbon fuels for energy, ships create air pollution that degrades air quality, adversely affects human health and contributes to the wide-reaching effects of climate change.

Learn more about air pollution health impacts from all sources

Energy Efficiency of Transportation Modes

Distance 1 tonne of cargo can travel on 1 litre of fuel in Canada’s Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

49 km
By truck
226 km
By train
394 km
By ship

Transferring cargo from trucks or trains onto ships and barges where possible, called short-sea shipping, can reduce overall transportation emissions.

While responsible for the release of less greenhouse gas (GHG) per tonne-kilometre of cargo transported than other forms of transportation, ships contributed approximately 3% of the world’s total GHG emissions in 2018.

In coming years, global shipping traffic is expected to grow in response to increased trade. Unless additional measures to limit emissions from ships are adopted and implemented, GHG emissions from shipping could increase by as much as 90% to 130% of 2008 emissions by 2050, depending on economic conditions.

Type of Air Pollution from Marine Shipping

Commercial ships burn fuel for energy and emit several types of air pollution as by-products. Ship-source pollutants most closely linked to climate change and public health impacts include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx) and particulate matter.

On a global scale, the marine shipping industry’s share of total emissions from human sources is:

per year
per year
per year

For context, Canada’s annual contribution from all sources to global CO2 emissions is 1.6%.

Learn more about climate change

Pollution Types from Marine Shipping

Particulate Matter
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

A major GHG contributing to climate change and ocean acidification.

  • CO2 contributes to widespread climate change by trapping the sun’s heat. In Canada, these climate changes include increased average and extreme temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, thawing permafrost, and increases in hazardous weather.
  • Climate change-induced extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and major storms have a negative impact on human health and cause untimely deaths worldwide.
  • When CO2 is absorbed by seawater, the water becomes more acidic. This increase in acidity has adverse effects on marine life and ecosystems.
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Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)

A collection of gases of various combinations of nitrogen and oxygen that:

  • Cause lung inflammation when breathed, increasing susceptibility to harm from allergens in people with asthma. NOx may enter the bloodstream and with long-term exposure lead to eventual heart and lung failures.
  • Interact with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to create ground-level ozone, which contributes to eye, nose and throat irritations; shortness of breath; worsening of respiratory conditions; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; asthma and allergies; cardiovascular disease and untimely death.
  • Cause acidification of soil and water (acid rain).
  • Decrease crop and vegetation productivity due to ground-level ozone, threatening food security.
  • Flood ecosystems with excess nitrogen nutrients, leading to toxic algal blooms in coastal waters and inland lakes.
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Sulphur Oxides (SOx)

A collection of gases of various combinations of sulphur and oxygen that:

  • Cause lung inflammation when breathed, increasing susceptibility to allergens in people with asthma. SOx and may enter the bloodstream and with long-term exposure lead to eventual heart and lung failures.
  • Cause eye irritation, increased susceptibility to respiratory tract infections, and increased hospital admissions for cardiac disease.
  • Cause acidification of soil and water (acid rain).
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Particulate Matter

A collection of solid and liquid particles formed during fuel combustion that:

  • Can be inhaled into people’s lungs and then absorbed into the bloodstream, which has been linked to many negative heart and lung health outcomes, including cancers.
  • Are a component of smog.
  • Form “black carbon”, the second largest contributor to climate change after CO2. While airborne, black carbon absorbs solar energy and contributes to atmospheric warming, before falling to earth as precipitation that darkens snow and ice surfaces. High concentrations of black carbon on ice and snow significantly reduce solar energy reflected back into space – the albedo effect – and accelerate melting.
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Impacts of Marine Shipping Air Pollution in Canada

Canadians feel the economic impacts from all sources of air pollution, including lost productivity; increased healthcare costs; decreased quality of life; stunted crops, plants, and trees (as shown above); and discoloured and damaged outdoor structures and materials – all of which costs Canadians and the Canadian economy billions of dollars per year.

The health and environmental impacts of air pollution from marine shipping are also felt in Canada, where marine shipping produced 4 million tonnes of GHG emissions in 2015 or about 0.6% of total Canadian GHG emissions.

Impact of Air Pollutants from Marine Shipping in Canada

Click on each pollutant in the legend to reveal its impact on the map

Ocean Acidification (CO2)
Ground-level Ozone (NOx)
Acid Rain (SOx)
Smog (Particulate Matter)
Black Carbon (Particulate Matter)


In Canadian coastal waters, acidification damages the shells of clams and mussels, affecting the productivity of a $5.2 billion aquaculture industry, and weakens coral structures, affecting their function as important habitat for other species.



In Canada, ground-level ozone is of particular concern in:

  • The Southern Atlantic region (NS and NB)
  • The Windsor-Quebec City corridor (ON and QC)
  • The Lower Fraser Valley (BC)

NOx also harm marine and aquatic life by contributing an over-abundance of nutrients to coastal waters and inland lakes that causes toxic algal blooms and decreases water oxygen levels.


The harm caused by SOx is widespread as pollutants can travel hundreds of kilometres inland; the provinces located on the Precambrian Shield – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – are most affected by acid rain.

Smog (Particulate Matter)

Particulate matter, along with ground-level ozone, is a key component of smog on Canadian coastlines. Ports where commercial marine shipping activities occur in the Atlantic Provinces, Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and the Arctic are particularly affected, but air pollution from ships can travel hundreds of kilometres inland, impacting more than 60% of Canada’s population.

Black Carbon (Particulate Matter)

While airborne, black carbon absorbs solar energy and contributes to atmospheric warming, before falling to earth as precipitation that darkens snow and ice surfaces. High concentrations of black carbon on ice and snow significantly reduce solar energy reflected back into space – the albedo effect – and accelerate melting.


Arctic Impacts

Air pollution from marine shipping both within and outside the Arctic impacts climate change and the health of people and ecosystems in the Arctic, and the number of ships transiting the Arctic, although currently low, is projected to increase.

The majority of fuel consumed by ships operating in the Canadian Arctic (57%) is heavy fuel oil (HFO). The combustion of HFO creates particulate matter (including black carbon) that is known to increase the rate of Arctic sea ice melt.

In April 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) committed to work towards measures to mitigate the risks associated with HFO, including a ban on HFO in the Arctic, based on an assessment of the impacts. Because Canadian Arctic communities rely on shipping to bring in essential goods including fuel, and rely on HFO as a source of energy on land, a ban on the use and carriage of HFO in the Arctic will have wide ranging effects which must be considered in developing and implementing a strategy to eliminate HFO from the Arctic.

Canada and the Marshall Islands submitted a proposal to conduct more research prior to implementing a ban on HFO use and carriage in the Arctic to assess economic and other impacts on Arctic communities.

In the Antarctic, the use and carriage of HFO has been banned since 2011.

Reducing Air Pollution from Marine Shipping

In Canada, air pollution from ships is regulated by the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and the complementary “Vessel Pollution and Dangerous Chemicals Regulations,” which incorporate standards established by the IMO.

The IMO regulates pollution from ships through the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

Learn more about air pollution in MARPOL Annex VI

In April 2018, the IMO adopted an initial strategy to reduce ship-source GHG, intended to reduce total annual emissions by at least 50% (compared to 2008 levels) by 2050.

The IMO has implemented a tiered approach to reducing NOx emissions for new-built ships. The three tiers specify NOx restrictions for ships built after certain dates, with more stringent restrictions for newer ships. Tier III requires up to an 80% reduction in NOx emissions for all ships constructed after January 1, 2016, compared to Tier I.

Regulations have positively impacted air quality in Canada with the majority of air pollutants decreasing significantly since 1990.

Air Pollutant Emissions from All Sources in Canada

Percentage change from 1990 levels.

Carbon monoxide
Sulphur oxides
Volatile organic compounds
Nitrogen oxides
Fine particulate matter

Emission Control Areas

In 2012, the IMO introduced emission control areas (ECAs) to minimize NOx, SOx and particulate matter in designated areas by implementing ship emission caps.

Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters below the 60th parallel and out to 200 nautical miles are protected in the North American ECA.

By 2020, as a result of these standards, emissions from ships in the entire North American ECA are expected to be reduced by:

Particulate Matter

North American Emission Control Area

ECAs are established by the IMO to limit emissions from ships in coastal areas. In North America’s ECA, ships must burn fuel or scrub exhaust to emit a maximum of 0.1% sulphur content since January 2015.

Canadian ships in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway currently operate under Canada’s fleet averaging regime, which bases compliance on the average sulphur content of all the fuel used by a firm’s fleet. As of December 31, 2020, all Canadian vessels will have to comply with ECA standards.

Control Area
Learn more about the North American ECA

The estimated health benefits to Canadians by 2020 from reduced air pollution from ships operating in the North American ECA include:

reduction in asthma symptom days
reduction in hospital admissions
reduction in mortalities
reduction in child acute bronchitis episodes

In Canada, the North American ECA is expected to result in:

(billion) per year in net health benefits
reduction of SOx and associated particulate matter emissions as of January 2015
reduction of NOx emissions from newly built ships as of January 2016

Practical Measures

To reduce air pollution from marine shipping, vessel owners and operators are implementing practical measures including alternative energy sources, modifications to ship components and operational efficiencies.

Practical Measures to Reduce Air Pollution from Ships

Click on ship elements to reveal the practical measures to reduce air pollution

Shore power hook up
Low-sulphur fuels
Alternative energy sources
Scrubber / selective catalytic reduction
Engine modifications
Bulbous bow modification
Rudder optimization
Propeller modifications
Slow steaming
Biofouling cleaning & preventative coating
Trim & draft optimization
Efficient navigation

Energy Sources

Shore Power

Shore power is the process of providing electrical power from the shore to a ship while at a berth and shutting off the ship’s auxiliary engines. Shore power reduces SOx, NOx and particulate matter emissions by 88% or more while in port and can also reduce CO2 emissions.

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Low-sulphur Fuels

To reduce SOx emissions ships can switch to a low-sulphur fuel or alternative fuel that has the added benefit of reducing particulate matter emissions. The current global limit of 3.5% sulphur content in marine fuel is approximately 3,000 times more than in road transportation fuel in Canada. As of January 2020, the IMO will limit all marine fuel to 0.5% sulphur content.

  • Marine diesel oil (MDO) – A heavy gas oil used primarily for marine purposes, this fuel can be produced with varying sulphur content.
  • Liquefied natural gas (LNG) – Liquefaction removes water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and sulphur compounds from the natural gas for a fuel of mostly methane with some other hydrocarbons and nitrogen. This fuel produces lifecycle GHG emissions comparable to conventional marine fuels.
  • Methanol – Liquid at room temperature, methanol is easier to store and distribute than LNG, but it increases lifecycle GHG emissions by 12-15% compared to conventional marine fuels.
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Alternative Energy Sources

Ongoing experiments are testing wind and solar power, batteries, biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells to power ships. These technologies have potential, but are not yet viable for commercial ships.

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Ship Modifications

Exhaust Cleaning
  • Scrubbers mix exhaust with caustic soda or water, removing up to 99% of SOx and 98% of particulate matter from high-sulphur fuel. A recent survey indicated scrubbers have been installed or ordered for 983 vessels internationally.
  • Selective catalytic reduction treats exhaust before release to reduce NOx emissions by 95%.
  • Humid air motor adds water vapour to the engine combustion chamber to reduce NOx emissions by 70%.
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Engine Modifications
  • Internal engine modifications – adding water, recirculating exhaust gas, cooling water temperatures, or modifying overlap timing or intake valve closing – can reduce NOx emissions by nearly 100%.
  • Gas-fuelled engines can use LNG or methanol as fuel to reduce NOx emissions by up to 90% and SOx and particulate matter by 95% to 100% when compared to HFO.
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Efficient Design
  • IMO introduced the Energy Efficiency Design Index in 2011 to provide minimum energy efficiency standards for new ships.
  • The IMO’s Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan has been adopted for all ships to monitor Energy Efficiency Operational Indicators and assist ship operators in evaluating fleet CO2 emissions.
  • Areas of ship design that increase energy efficiency include the shape of the hull, propeller and rudder. Optimizing the hull shape and vessel superstructure is estimated to reduce fuel consumption by 15% for all types of vessels of over 5,000 gross tonnes.
  • Many vessel modifications can be applied to existing ships through retrofits though implementation is limited by the cost and time required.
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Operational Efficiencies

Slow Steaming

Speed reduction effectively reduces fuel consumption and therefore air pollutants. A speed reduction of 5% in open-ocean conditions is associated with reported fuel savings of approximately 13% for bulk carriers or tankers and 16%-19% for container ships. However, concerns go beyond increased travel time as ships may be operating outside of intended design parameters, potentially affecting the function of the engines and propellers and consumption of lubrication oil.

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Vessel Cleaning and Coating

Live organisms ranging from algae and microbes to sea stars and crabs can attach themselves to ships’ hulls, propellers and other underwater components in a process known as biofouling. This biological layer increases a ship’s resistance in water, increasing the fuel required to go an equivalent distance when compared to a clean ship. Research has estimated, depending on the thickness of the biological layer, a ship’s fuel consumption increases by 18% to 38%. Anti-fouling coatings can discourage build-up and reduce the frequency of hull cleanings.

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Trim and Draft Optimization

Cargo distribution can influence the amount of resistance during a voyage. Ship operators can apply software to optimize cargo loading and increase fuel efficiency by 0.5% to 5%, depending on vessel type.

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Efficient Navigation

Ship operators can navigate more economically by navigating to avoid sharp load increases on the engine and incorporating tide and current conditions to reduce propulsion demand through route optimization.

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Initiatives Underway

Port of Halifax
  • The Port of Halifax was the first port in Atlantic Canada to implement shore power. Completed in 2013, the project was part of a $10 million cooperative initiative between the Government of Canada, the Province of Nova Scotia and the Halifax Port Authority. The installation is expected to improve air quality by decreasing engine idling by 7%, an amount representative of approximately 123,000 litres of fuel and 370,000 kg of GHG and air pollutant emissions.
Green Marine
  • Demonstrated quantitative GHG emissions reductions by its ship owners through a voluntary reporting initiative; results show an average annual reduction of 1.4% between 2016 and the baseline (some as early as 2008).
  • Separate performance indicators reduce SOx and particulate matter emissions (influenced by fuel quality) and NOx emissions (influenced by engine design).
  • Manages the Port Emissions Inventory Tool made available by Transport Canada to allow ports to monitor GHG and air pollutants.
Groupe Desgagnés
  • Launched the first two Canadian-flagged duel-fuel tanker vessels in 2016 that can be powered by LNG, MDO or HFO. The vessels are double-hulled with Polar 7 certification for Arctic navigation and have “Cleanship Super” and “Green Passport” sustainability certifications.
Algoma Central Corporation
  • Co-founding Green Marine member, active since 2008 with an established GHG reduction target of 25% by 2025.
  • Fleet now incorporates seven new vessels that are 40% more fuel efficient than previous ships, and seven vessels retrofitted with closed-loop exhaust gas scrubbers to remove 98% of SOx emissions and 43% of particulate matter from combusted fuel.
Canada Steamship Lines
  • Co-founding Green Marine member, active since 2007 with an established GHG reduction target of 35% by 2030 (from 2005 levels).
  • In 2017, reduced GHG emissions per tonne-nautical mile by 5.6% (equivalent to 17,000 fewer cars driven for one year) and SOx emissions by 4.5% (equivalent to 114 million tonnes of sulphur).
Port of Montreal
  • In 2017, the Alexandra Pier Shore Power Project was completed at a cost of $11 million, funded by the Government of Canada, the Province of Quebec, and the Montreal Port Authority. Annual GHG reductions are estimated at approximately 2,800 tonnes, equivalent to removing 700 trucks from the road.
Government of Canada
  • Shore Power Technology for Ports contribution program is providing up to $27.2 million to Canadian port authorities, terminal operators and ferry operators to support the deployment of marine shore power technology. Five projects have been completed to date and installation at two more terminals is underway.
  • Shore power technology reduces ship owners’ fuel costs and increases the competitiveness of Canadian ports.
Environment and Climate Change Canada
  • Developed the Marine Emissions Inventory Tool (MEIT) in 2010 as an activity-based emissions inventory for all vessels operating in Canadian waters. MEIT was recently revised with updated activity data and emissions factors.
  • MEIT is used by government to assess changes in marine emissions and fuel consumption due to changes in regulations and other initiatives to reduce air pollution.
Port of Vancouver
  • The EcoAction Program, launched in 2007, promotes emission reduction measures that exceed the current North American ECA requirements while vessels are operating within the Port’s jurisdiction by offering discounted harbour dues to vessels that have implemented emission reduction measures while at anchor and at berth.
  • In 2009, the Port of Vancouver became the first in Canada and third in the world to offer shore power for ships. The port currently has three shore power connection points that have reduced air pollutants by 524 tonnes and GHG by 18,264 tonnes from cruise ships and container vessels.
Port of Prince Rupert
  • Conducts an annual inventory of air pollution and GHG from port and terminal activities using the Port Emission Inventory Tool to prioritize ways to reduce emissions. Inventory results indicate marine vessels are the largest contributor to port emissions. Also conducts ongoing ambient air quality monitoring at Westview and Fairview Terminals to help understand air quality in the region.
  • Designed Fairview Container terminal with shore power capability.
  • Implemented the Green Wave Program in 2013 to provide reduced harbour dues for ships with strong environmental performance, such as using cleaner fuels.

About Clear Seas

Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping is an independent research centre that promotes safe and sustainable marine shipping in Canada.

Clear Seas was established in 2014 after extensive discussions among government, industry, environmental organizations, indigenous peoples and coastal communities revealed a need for impartial information about the Canadian marine shipping industry.

Clear Seas received seed funding in 2015 through equal contributions from the Government of Canada (Transport Canada), the Government of Alberta (Alberta Energy) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Our funders saw the need for an independent organization that would be a source of objective information on issues related to marine shipping in Canada.

As an independent research centre, Clear Seas operates at arm’s length from our funders. Our research agenda is defined internally in response to current issues, reviewed by our research advisory committee, and approved by our board of directors.

Our board of directors is composed of scientists, community leaders, engineers and industry executives with decades of experience investigating human, environmental and economic issues related to our oceans, coastlines and waterways.

Our reports and findings are available to the public at

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