Rivers play an important role in any city, in terms of the economy, transportation of people and goods, and the wellbeing of local residents. In recent years, the maritime sector has become increasingly aware of its environmental and social impacts.

We are bringing the scheme in now to support operators in responding to a range of environmental challenges across air quality, energy, water quality and more besides. This section sets out some of the detail around those challenges.

Air Quality

Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions and reduce life expectancy, while short-term exposure can also affect lung function and exacerbate asthma.

Shipping activities can emit several pollutants harmful to human health and biodiversity to the air, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM2.5 & PM10). According to data from the Department for Transport (DfT) domestic shipping accounted for 11% of the UK’s total domestic NOx emissions and 2% of primary fine particulate matter in 2016.

Currently, no safe level of exposure has been identified below which there is no risk of adverse health effects. Further reduction in emissions of pollutants is therefore likely to bring additional health benefits.

The updated AQS set the reduction targets for inland vessel, relative to 2016 baseline, for NOx and PM as follows:

  • 20% by 2026
  • 40% by 2031
  • 50% by 2041
  • 95% by 2051.

The emission reduction targets for carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) for inland vessels are:

  • 25% by 2031
  • 75% by 2041
  • 95% by 2051.

In the short term and for existing vessels, air emissions can be minimised by regular engine checks, the use of Gas-To-Liquid (GTL) or Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), engine upgrades, and retrofits.  For longer term and new vessels, air emissions at point of use can be reduced by hybrid vessels, or eliminated by electronification.

Energy & Carbon

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous monoxide, are emitted into the air through the burning of fossil fuels. Scientific evidence shows high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the leading cause of climate change. Climate change is resulting in sea level rise, increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and storms, and the impacts they have, such as flooding and drought. The affects will impact us all.

In June 2019, the UK became the world’s first major economy to create a binding legal target to bring all greenhouse gases emissions to Net Zero by 2050.  It is crucial in the intervening period to make substantial and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to alleviate the impacts already being felt.

In the short term, greenhouse gas emissions reduction can be achieved by improving vessel efficiency, while electrification is the long-term solution. Net zero means any emissions would be balanced by offsetting an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through planting trees, wildflowers, putting up green wall or using technology like carbon capture and storage.

Water quality, litter and waste

Rivers and estuaries account for some of the richest biodiversity and are a vital ecosystems for many species. The Thames is home to thousands of overwintering birds, 125 different species of fish, and marine mammals, such as seals and porpoises.

Discharges of untreated sewage (known as blackwater) and water from laundry, kitchens or baths (known as grey water) can have a negative impact on water quality. It can increase the abundance of harmful bacteria and decrease the level of oxygen in the water, which can be a threat to aquatic life.

Untreated/recovered oil spills can quickly spread out by wind, currents, flow and wash. The spilt oil floats on the surface of the water can seriously harm marine mammals if they become oiled or breath in oil fumes. It can also affect the livelihood of fish and plankton if it disperses down into the water column.

Every year an estimated 14 million pieces of plastic end up in and around our canals and rivers. Every year hundreds of tonnes of plastic bottles, food wrappers and other rubbish get into the Thames, harming marine life and degrading the river environment for people.

Other nuisance, such as light pollution, black smoke, wash, can also disrupt local resident and local ecology. Having a management system in place for sewage, oil spill, waste and litter and nuisance complaints can effectively minimise the negative impacts to the environment.