Activists call for Seattle-Busan green shipping corridor

Ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Portland and Seattle later this week, climate advocates with the Ship It Zero coalition are calling for the federal government to help address the ocean shipping industry’s growing pollution problem. Ship It Zero is asking that the administration use funding from the US$1 trillion infrastructure package to create a green shipping corridor between Seattle and Busan, South Korea. 

Due to COVID-19 pandemic-related congestion issues at California ports, imports through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma are up 40% over 2019 — alongside growing pollution concerns for nearby communities.

A green shipping corridor announcement during Biden’s visit to Seattle would be extremely timely, given the similar announcement made earlier this year by the ports of Los Angeles and Shanghai. 

Any announcement of a green shipping corridor between Seattle and Busan would bolster Biden’s commitment to clean up the emissions from the heavily polluting ocean shipping industry. 

As a signatory of the Clydebank Declaration launched at COP 26, the U.S. is already committed to collaborative efforts to establish green shipping corridors among some of the world’s busiest maritime shipping routes. Just last week, the U.S. Department of State highlighted efforts underway by the Biden Administration to support a zero-emissions, short-sea shipping corridor between Seattle and Juneau, Alaska.

The market for transoceanic cargo shipping has grown over the past several decades, and the pandemic accelerated the trend toward shipping goods bought online. More than 50,000 merchant ships carry around 80 percent of global trade, and ocean-going cargo volumes are projected to grow by as much as 130 percent by 2050. 

Every single merchant ship in operation right now runs on fossil fuels, with most of them running off of one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet, heavy fuel oil.

The Los Angeles area receives 40% of all containerized cargo imports to the U.S., which come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, making nearby communities particularly vulnerable to harmful pollutants. Port-adjacent communities experience up to eight years lower life expectancy than the Los Angeles County average, and have the highest risk of cancer regionally.

During the pandemic, port pollution has skyrocketed. According to the California Air Resources Board, in 2021, fossil-fueled cargo ship congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach caused an increase in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions equivalent to adding 5.8 million passenger cars to the region, and an increase in particulate matter (PM) emissions equivalent to 100,000 big rig trucks per day. Both pollutants are associated with higher risk of asthma, cancer, and premature death.  

Other West Coast ports also bear a heavy pollution burden from international shipping. According to a 2019 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, the ports of Seattle/Tacoma and San Francisco have the highest rates in the U.S. of early deaths per 100,000 residents from port pollution, more than double the global average. 

A 2013 study by Just Health Action and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition found that life expectancy in Seattle’s port-adjacent neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park is up to 13 years shorter than wealthier and less diverse parts of the city.

The science shows that zero-emissions solutions are within grasp. According to a 2020 International Council on Clean Transportation study, Transpacific voyages could be powered by green hydrogen instead of fossil fuels, with only minor changes to ship fuel capacity or operations.

Photo credit: iStock/ wpd911

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