London cruise terminal expansion threatens city's air quality

The development of a new cruise ship terminal on the river Thames could undermine efforts to tackle the city’s air pollution crisis. City mayor Sadiq Khan has expressed his concerns about the project, but the decision rests in the hands of the local council. JOSEPH DUTTON investigates

Pollution from shipping causes 50,000 premature deaths in Europe each year.

Planning permission was controversially granted for the Enderby Wharf cruise terminal in Greenwich in 2015.

Opposition to the plan centred on the fact the terminal will not have an onshore power source for ships docking there. This means power will instead come from ships’ onboard engines, rather than a local electricity supply.

The cruise ships of up to 240 metres long that will use the terminal burn 700 gallons of diesel per hour using their auxiliary engines, generating emissions equivalent to that of 688 idling lorries, according to local residents.

And with the terminal expected to welcome a cruise liner at a rate of more than one a week – staying for up to 3 days at a time – the threat to air pollution is high.

Growing opposition

Last month, campaign group No Toxic Cruise Port in London handed a petition with 7,000 signatures to Greenwich borough council with a simple demand: build a clean cruise port or do not build one at all.

The mayor of neighbouring borough Tower Hamlets across the river in east London also wrote to the council asking for the scheme to be revised, and London mayor Sadiq Khan has asked the council to ‘do the right thing’. But ultimately the decision rests with Greenwich Borough Council.

A judicial review was brought against Greenwich council in 2016 on grounds that local authorities had insufficiently looked in to air pollution the terminal would create.

But the High Court ruled that the office of then London mayor and project supporter Boris Johnson was satisfied with measures put in place monitor of air quality. But monitoring of air pollution is not mitigation, and the development will diminish the air quality in Greenwich.

Pollution from shipping causes 50,000 premature deaths in Europe each year.

Clean power across European ports

Onshore power supply for ships is common in other ports across Europe. Gothenburg in Sweden installed its first onshore power supply systems in 1989, while as far back as 2002 the EU began developing a strategy to reduce pollution from shipping and increase the use of land-based power supply.

Major ports in Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands have onshore power supplies in place.

Pollution from shipping is estimated to cause 50,000 premature deaths in Europe every year, but using onshore power can help tackle air pollution.

Onshore power reduces emissions of nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide by up to 97 percent, as well as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. It also cuts noise pollution and vibration from ship’s engines, which are a health hazard for crew and residents living nearby.

Most emissions on the Thames are generated outside of central London, downstream at Purfleet, Tilbury Docks and the London Gateway container port. 

All three are in Essex but come under the jurisdiction of the Port of London Authority. But within London, the proposed terminal at Greenwich sits on one of the three most polluted stretches of the Thames. Levels of nitrous oxide levels here are at least twice as high as central London stretches of the river.

Clean air strategy under threat

Greenwich was the first UK local authority to declare itself a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in 2004, and in July 2016 it was designated as one of the first five Low Emission Neighbourhoods (LENs) in London.

As part of this it received £3 million to fund low-emission projects such as new electric vehicle charging points and pedestrian-friendly streets.

But the proposed cruise terminal sits less than half a mile from the northern edge of this zone, potentially undermining any benefits the low emission plan delivers. 

Reducing emissions from the Thames is part of the mayor’s transport strategy published earlier this year, as well as being key to the air pollution strategy.

Total emissions from river traffic are expected to increase because of growing river usage in the coming years – and the new terminal is set to be part of this future growth.

When open, it will be the only terminal in London where cruise passengers can disembark directly to shore – something not available at the existing three. Currently this can only be done at the ‘London Cruise Terminal’, at Tilbury in Essex – 25 miles from central London.

In the face of the growing local opposition the leader of Greenwich council has apparently changed his stance on the development plans.

Having initially backed the scheme, he recently said the developers need to be ‘brought back to the table’ claiming air pollution was not previously not the agenda in the way it is now.

But the plans remain on the table, and unchanged. The decision of amending them will be a key test of how serious London authorities are taking the fight against air pollution and listening to the voices of the city’s residents.

This Author

Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. All views are his own. He tweets at @JDuttonUK

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