The tiny Belgian plane that ‘sniffs’ out polluting ships

By Sean Fleming, Formative Content | October 8, 2021

With a bird’s eye view of the world’s busiest shipping lane, a small plane is helping to ‘sniff out’ some of the most polluting ships.

Every day, more than 500 ships pass through the narrow strip of ocean separating the UK from continental Europe. It’s a vital conduit for billions of tonnes of cargo each year, travelling to and from key ports in the Middle East, Europe and America.

But all this shipping traffic is creating pollution, with sulphur and nitrogen emissions a particular problem.

A small plane flown by the Belgian coast guard service has been equipped with atmospheric pollution sensors, developed to detect two kinds of emissions: sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Shipping traffic between the UK and continental Europe
Shipping traffic between the UK and continental Europe. Image: MarineTraffic

Flying above shipping lanes, the plane can assess the levels of emissions coming from around 15 ships per hour. Any vessel thought to be exceeding emissions levels will be re-tested in port and, if the findings are confirmed, could be fined.

An aerial surveillance operator with the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences who works with the sniffer plane team has said that an in-person inspection of a single ship’s emissions would take a whole day to complete, according to Euro News.

The small plane can detect emissions from vessels below.
The small plane can detect emissions from vessels below. Image: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Cutting back emissions

Shipping has been identified as a source of around 2.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and an estimated 940 million tonnes of CO2 per year. And these emissions are projected to grow rapidly unless action is taken.

Projections from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are of an increase in shipping emissions of between 50% and 250% by 2050, unless prompt action is taken. The IMO has embarked on a strategy to reduce CO2 emissions from shipping by at least 40% by 2030, rising to 70% by 2050.

A special edition of the World Economic Forum’s Agenda Dialogues on 29 September 2021, looked at the challenges of reducing the impact of pollution and carbon emissions from hard-to-abate sectors.

Soren Skou, CEO of the Danish shipping giant Møller-Maersk, said that reducing emissions from shipping cannot be achieved by shipping companies alone. “We’re trying to solve a chicken and egg problem,” he said. “Nobody is producing green fuels for shipping, because no ships are using it.”

“We’re aware we’re part of the problem in terms of our emissions. But also believe we’re part of the solution,” he continued.

Speaking at the same event, John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, said the world must “accelerate everything” to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

“We’re behind, dangerously behind,” he said. “This entire challenge is defined by arithmetic and physics. We know the numbers and we must be guided by that.”

Kerry said that around 50% of the required reduction in emissions will come from future technologies, some of which aren’t yet operating at scale.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.

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