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Cargo ships floating under the emissions radar

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the shipping industry is neither lean nor green.

Ships carry about 90 percent of global trade and, until recently, such has been the demand for coal, cars and electronics, that there has been little concerted effort to rein in the growth of polluting emissions from ships.

But pressure is growing in the United Nations and from the European Union to make ships more efficient and their smokestacks more climate friendly.

Just a few kilometers from one of the busiest ports in the world, a Singapore firm says it has the answer that can help the shipping industry clean up its act.

Ecospec says it has invented and tested a patented method that removes planet-warming carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain as well as soot from ship exhausts.

The process, which uses very alkaline sea water sprayed into the exhaust funnel to scrub out the gases and soot, has already been tested on a tanker and earned the backing of the American Bureau of Shipping.

Inventor Chew Hwee Hong said his firm had already developed non-chemical methods of water treatment and in 2008 was given a challenge by a large Middle Eastern tanker firm to find a way to scrub out CO2 emissions.

The trick was to find a method that didn't cause secondary environmental damage and cleaned up the other polluting gases in the exhaust as well, he said.

"Today, the Kyoto Protocol and the awareness about CO2 contributing to global warming means you can't say I don't care about the rest of the gases. You have to look at the whole thing as one solution."

Shipping contributes about 4 percent of global emissions from burning fossil fuels, about double the emissions from aviation.

But the industry is less visible to most people than aviation and only very recently faced limits on some of the pollutants in funnel emissions, particularly nitrogen oxides (called NOx) and sulphur dioxide. An internal report submitted to the International Maritime Organisation's Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) in 2007 estimated total CO2 emissions from shipping at 1.12 billion tonnes in 2007 and forecast 30 percent growth by 2020.


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