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Vessel Emissions: River Thames

Volume 664: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered emissions from vessels on the River Thames.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Gray, and I am pleased that amid the current political turmoil time has been found to debate this important issue, which is of real concern to large numbers of my constituents. I have been seeking the debate for some time, and I am grateful to the Minister who will respond to it on what has been short notice.

The Minister is well aware, not least because of the numerous times I have raised this in the main Chamber, of the historical proposal to construct a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf in east Greenwich, in my constituency. That proposal was extremely contentious locally, not because large numbers of my constituents were implacably opposed to the siting of a terminal in the area or did not recognise that it had the potential to make a positive contribution to Greenwich in tourism, jobs and revenue for local business, but because residents would not accept—I count myself as one of them—the negative impact that the terminal as proposed would have had on local amenities and, in particular, on the quality of the air we breathe.

For that reason, I fought alongside local community and amenity groups to secure a clean, green terminal at Enderby Wharf—one that would have met the highest, not just the most basic, environmental and air quality standards—or, if one could not be secured, for the proposal to be scrapped altogether. In the end, after a sustained effort over several years to bring home to the developer the reputational cost of seeking to proceed with plans for a terminal that was not environmentally sustainable, we won: the then owner, investment bank Morgan Stanley, announced that it was scrapping its plans. On Friday 5 July, Criterion Capital, a property company that I understand owns and manages a £2 billion portfolio across London and the south-east of England and that has acquired the Enderby Wharf site from Morgan Stanley, confirmed that it would not revive plans for a cruise liner terminal on the site.

I commend my hon. Friend for securing this debate and congratulate him on his campaign to protect his residents against emissions from the Thames. My constituency is right across the Thames from his, and I was happy and proud to support his campaign. He has used the words “we won”, but is it not a shame that we were not able to secure the investment, jobs and all the rest of it to support London, the Thames and tourism because of the inability to agree a sustainably environmental project, which everyone would have welcomed had it been achieved?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was a great frustration to him, as it was to me, that the developer would not listen and commit to plans for a clean, green terminal and shore-to-ship power.

Nevertheless, it was right that the proposals as set out were scrapped, and residents very much welcomed that. I also welcomed Criterion Capital’s confirmation that the proposals had been scrapped. However, the final demise of the terminal does not mean that the problem of toxic emissions relating to activity on the River Thames has been solved for those living in my constituency. The issue remains of emissions from other vessels using the river and, in particular for my constituents who live in west Greenwich, the emissions from the large number of cruise liners that dock at Greenwich pier each year.

In the time available I will argue that the Government must do more to address that problem and that the best means of doing so is by overhauling the fragmented arrangements in place for regulating the Thames and by establishing a coherent and effective emissions control framework for the river that will improve air quality for those communities that live beside it.

The problem of emissions in London and on the Thames in particular is clear, but emissions throughout the United Kingdom are an important issue as well. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is important for the Lord Mayor of London, the Port of London Authority, and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to come together to set emission reduction targets and to ensure that they are achieved?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that a huge number of organisations have some regulatory role or other with regards to the river. As I will come on to argue, we need to bring some coherence and simplification to that by means of a single regulator for the Thames.

I do not need to spend much time outlining why air pollution is such a serious problem. There is growing awareness among the public about the fact that the toxic and illegal levels of air pollution across our country are an invisible hazard that contributes to the ill health and premature deaths of tens of thousands of people each year, including thousands of Londoners. There is a growing realisation that air pollution constitutes a public health crisis. The public are perhaps less aware of the fact that shipping emissions, in the form of nitrogen oxide and dioxide, as well as sulphur, are a major source of that pollution. Indeed, if concerted action is not taken, by 2020 shipping will be the biggest single emitter of air pollution in Europe.

As things stand, emissions from vessels on the River Thames are not the most significant contributor to air pollution in London, but their contribution is still significant. In the absence of concerted action, as road and other emissions sources are steadily reduced—for a variety of reasons—emissions from the river will account for a steadily higher proportion of London’s total. Crucially, emissions from the River Thames are necessarily concentrated in riparian parts of London such as Greenwich and Woolwich, which already suffer from incredibly poor air quality, in particular in hotspots such as east Greenwich or Charlton in the vicinity of the A102. That is why more must be done to bear down on emissions generated by vessels using the river, a huge variety of which do so, each and every day.

I have already mentioned that the primary concern in the corner of south-east London that I represent is the extremely large cruise liners that berth at Greenwich ship pier. According to the Port of London Authority, the body responsible for vessels mooring at the pier, 12 cruise liners berthed at Greenwich last year and a total of 14 are set to do so this year. The Minister probably has some sense of the size of vessel in question. They are huge. When berthed, such liners are, in essence, floating hotels and are required—in the absence of the shore-to-ship power for which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I were campaigning—to run their engines in order to serve their onboard guests.

I am no shipping expert, but my understanding is that an average cruise liner running its auxiliary engines while berthed burns approximately 700 litres of diesel fuel an hour, the equivalent of 688 idling heavy goods vehicles. By any account, the emissions they generate are considerable.

All such ships must of course comply with international emissions standards. Those are complex, with different standards for nitrogen oxides and sulphur, as well as with greenhouse gases at different tiers, but in general terms they require emissions from vessels to be equivalent to burning 0.1% sulphur fuel or less. That sounds stringent, but those standards need to be set in context. A limit of 0.1% sulphur fuel or less is more than 100 times the amount of sulphur permitted in road diesel.

It is true that river vessels are subject to progressively tightening emissions standards internationally, but it is also the case that new or forthcoming regulatory measures, such as the introduction of the North sea emissions control area from 1 January 2021, are not particularly ambitious. They will not apply to onboard generators used when a vessel is berthed; to vessels built before the date that the area comes into force; or to existing vessels that replace their engines with non-identical ones or that install additional ones. Given that vessels tend to have significantly longer lifespans than road vehicles, the impact of such measures on fleet renewal is likely to be minimal.

Personally, I do not believe that the solution to this problem is to ban all cruise liners from entering London. However, I am convinced that we require more stringent emissions standards for vessels using the River Thames, including cruise liners of the kind that berth at Greenwich Pier, than what is required now or will be required in future years by way of international shipping standards, so that the problem does not exacerbate already poor local air quality and adversely impact on the health of Londoners, in particular those living in developments close to the shoreline.

The barrier to more effective emission standards for vessels on the Thames is the fact that responsibility for regulation of the river is utterly fragmented—that was alluded to by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—and no existing regulator has a clear responsibility for improving air quality or reducing emissions overall. At present, a wide range of organisations either have responsibility for regulating different classes and uses of vessels on the Thames or have commercial influence on them through ownership or tendering. They include the Port of London Authority, the Environment Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, riparian boroughs with boundaries that lie in the river itself, such as Greenwich, and Transport for London. By my calculation, there are more than 20 such organisations with some type of regulatory function.

The inherent conflicts of interest further complicate the problem of regulatory fragmentation. The Port of London Authority, for example, is under pressure to play its part in improving air quality in London and has developed a groundbreaking air quality strategy to that end. It is investing in a comprehensive air quality monitoring programme around Greenwich ship tier and is looking into the practicalities, costs and benefits that shore power might bring to its London moorings. Yet it receives income for the duration of each vessel’s stay at its moorings, including the large cruise liners that berth at Greenwich pier, and it has no formal responsibility to regulate the emissions generated by the vessels to which it issues licences.

That is not a criticism of the PLA or any other organisation with some form of regulatory role on the Thames or commercial influence. In fact, I am confident that each of them is doing as much as it feasibly can within the current framework. For example, Transport for London is developing a pier strategy that could incentivise the use of vessels with high emissions standards, and has led by example by ensuring that the Woolwich ferry service now has upgraded stage V, hybrid vessels, fitted with additional post-exhaust treatment to reduce emissions and an innovative docking system whereby new vehicles do not have to run their engines at berth.

Another example is the Mayor of London, who has allocated £500,000 from his air quality fund to retrofit 11 vessels, and commits in his transport strategy to support proposals to ensure that new and refurbished wharves, piers and canal moorings generate renewable power onsite.

The efforts undertaken by individual organisations, however, are necessarily piecemeal. They are not enough to adequately bear down on harmful emissions generated by vessels across the river as a whole, and they are not an adequate response to the issue of the most concern to those I represent: emissions from cruise liners berthing at Greenwich pier.

Two things are needed to tackle air pollution on the River Thames, alongside the Government’s wider measures for the UK as a whole. I hope the Minister, her officials and her colleagues in other Departments will give them serious consideration. The first is the establishment of a single overarching regulator for the Thames and London waterways, to replace the present fragmented regime. The second is the introduction of a coherent and effective London-wide emissions control framework on the river, to replace the patchwork of diffuse and overlapping responsibilities currently in place.

The current regulatory set-up for vessels on the river is not only complex and opaque but simply inadequate to reduce shipping emissions at the scale and pace required. Let me give a practical example of why that is the case. The various organisations that have responsibility for regulating different classes and uses of vessels on the river must accept each other’s licences in certain circumstances. That means that any positive action by one organisation with regulatory responsibility can easily be undermined by another. It is a classic collective action problem. The PLA’s green tariff, which has been moderately successful at places such as Tilbury, will never work as effectively as a coherent London-wide framework for emissions standards on the river, because its impact can easily be undermined by the behaviour of less proactive organisations.

The situation cries out for a coherent and consistent approach. Replacing the current multi-regulator system with a single overarching one, either by creating a new regulator or by empowering an existing one such as the Port of London Authority, would increase transparency and accountability. It would ensure the consistent application of standards that we do not have at present and, for that reason, it would increase investment in emissions reductions technologies and infrastructure, and in cleaner vessels by operators. It would also reduce bureaucracy as it would necessarily entail a reduction in the number of enforcement and licensing authorities. That new system would require primary legislation but, assuming that the Government are still committed to introducing an environment Bill in the next Session of Parliament, it could easily be achieved by means of that proposed legislation.

I do not pretend to have a detailed blueprint of precisely what powers such a regulator would have; it might simply be authorised to set minimum emissions limits for the Thames that differ from those set internationally by the International Maritime Organisation. It could oversee and enforce a system much like the ultra low emission zone, where standards are set and non-complaint vessels are not banned but simply deterred from using the Thames or incentivised to upgrade by means of appropriate charging structures.

It is important that the Government recognise the case for reform and act. It is right that plans for a polluting Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal have been scrapped for good. However, the demise of the terminal proposal does not mean that the problem of toxic emissions generated by vessels on the Thames has been solved. In the current situation, Londoners who live near, travel on, or work on or close to the river are not adequately protected. My constituents are not protected from air pollution generated by vessels on the Thames, particularly those living in west Greenwich, who must live with emissions from the scores of cruise liners that berth at Greenwich pier each year.

I recognise that the Government’s focus to date has been on tackling shipping emissions at an international level. However, I urge the Minister to work in partnership with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly to give London the means to solve this problem by overhauling the fragmented regulatory arrangements that are currently in place, and by working to introduce a single regulator for the Thames that can oversee and enforce stringent emissions standards. Improving the air quality on and around our capital’s river is an essential part of addressing the public health crisis we face. When it comes to tackling air pollution in London, the River Thames cannot be an afterthought.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) on his perseverance in securing this debate. I read on his blog that he had been putting in for it for some time, and I congratulate him on his tenacity. I welcomed the interventions from the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and our very good friend from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is right to suggest that, although this debate is about the Thames, there may be similar issues in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Improving air quality and reducing emissions is a top priority for the Government. I assure hon. Members that we are committed to reducing emissions from ships and river transport, to reduce their impact on the environment and subsequently improve public health. While it is important that we continue to improve air quality on the Thames, it is also important to remember that the river has contemporary importance as a transport route and plays a role in reducing congestion and pollution on London roads. For example, the Battersea power station project is using the Thames to transport materials, avoiding road transport, and hon. Members will have seen the barges going past the House of Commons that take a lot of waste out towards east London and beyond.

Unusually, I am assisted today by officials from another Department, as a lot of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich relate to the Department for Transport. Although it is for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to respond to this debate, given the mention of emissions and vessels, I emphasise that our Departments are working together on this issue. I am pleased to be supported by high-level officials from the Department for Transport, who have supplied some helpful notes—and may need to supply a few more if there are further interventions.

Air quality is improving nationally. We published our clean air strategy earlier this year, which the World Health Organisation welcomed as an

“example for the rest of the world to follow”.

I am proud that it is the most ambitious air quality strategy in a generation, which aims to cut air pollution and save lives. It sets out how we will work towards some ambitious targets, working closely across all parts of Government and society to meet those goals. The broad scope of actions outlined in the strategy reflects the fact that if we are to fully address poor air quality, we need to look beyond roadside emissions to the full range of pollution sources that contribute to the problem in a systemic way.

We have new and ambitious goals, intended legislation, investment and policies to help us to clean up our air faster and more effectively. In line with that approach, the clean air strategy identifies shipping and river transport as a potentially significant source of local public exposure to harmful pollutants that we must address. When preparing with officials for the debate, I was under the impression that approximately 1% of London’s emissions are considered to come from the river, and I have more to say on the further work we intend to undertake on that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the complexity of the regulation of vessels on the River Thames, and the impact on air quality. It is true that there are multiple agencies and authorities with responsibility for regulating the different classes and uses of vessels, including those on the Thames, and for driving efforts to improve air quality in London. He suggests that the system is fragmented. I recognise that it has complexity, which is due to the need to appropriately regulate a diverse group of international, inland and domestic vessels. The intricacy is a barrier to understanding emissions from vessels, and it is increasingly a barrier to identifying where further supportive or regulatory action could be necessary.

The Government recognise that, to tackle emissions from shipping effectively, we need first to have a better understanding of the emissions, and then to review the technical, operational and regulatory options that are available. In July, the Government launched a wide-ranging call for evidence, seeking to close this evidence gap. The call is open until 11 January 2020. The time provided for the call is deliberately lengthy, so that we can maximise participation from groups such as operators of smaller vessels, which tend to be busiest in the warmer summer months.

Let me set out the action that the Government have already taken, and are planning to take in the future, to control emissions from vessels in UK waters and on our waterways. The Government are keen to ensure that air pollution from ships is reduced, with a long-term goal set out in the clean maritime plan to achieve a zero-emissions domestic shipping sector by 2050. Significant action has already been taken to tackle this important issue in a number of key areas.

At UN level, with the International Maritime Organisation, we have consistently pressed for the most stringent international controls in high-risk areas such as the North sea and the English channel, with the result that they are internationally recognised as sulphur emission control areas. In 2015, a sulphur cap of 0.1% was introduced in the North sea emission control area, including the Thames, entailing a tenfold reduction from the previous sulphur limit of 1%. The IMO has further agreed a 0.5% sulphur limit for global shipping outside emission control areas from 1 January 2020—a reduction of 3 percentage points from the current limit.

Importantly for the UK and the Thames region, the IMO has also agreed to the introduction of a NOx emission control area for the North sea from 1 January 2021. As the hon. Gentleman identified, this will reduce NOx emissions from new ships operating in this area by around three quarters. I asked exactly the same question that he did: why does this apply only to new ships? It is because this is the agreed approach on IMO rules. They are applied to new ships only and do not apply retrospectively.

Furthermore, the UK has been at the forefront of pushing for an ambitious strategy at the IMO to reduce greenhouse gases from shipping. Member states have committed to phasing out greenhouse gas emissions from shipping as soon as possible in this century, and by at least 50% by 2050. As part of this work, we have secured mandatory energy efficiency requirements for new ships entering the fleet, with a resulting reduction in fuel consumption and associated air pollution from such vessels.

All these controls have delivered and will continue to deliver major emissions reductions and benefits to air quality. They have also stimulated the development and uptake of alternative fuels, innovative green technologies and new ship designs that offer a long-term route to zero-emissions shipping. The Government intend to introduce the Environment Bill when parliamentary time allows. The principal aim of the air quality provisions in the Bill is to enable stronger, more effective action to be taken on addressing the health impacts associated with poor air quality.

More specifically for shipping, the clean maritime plan that was launched in July establishes the Government’s environmental route map for shipping and builds on the vision found in our “Maritime 2050: navigating the future” publication, which aims to shape up the future of the maritime sector and includes a long-term vision of zero-emissions shipping. The core commitments in the clean maritime plan include a call in 2020 for evidence on non-tax incentives to support the transition to zero-emissions shipping, a consultation on how the renewable transport fuel obligation could be used to encourage the uptake of low-carbon fuels in the maritime sector, and a green finance initiative that will be launched next week during London international shipping week. As the DFT has written this part of the speech, I hope I have not done an unscheduled release of that information—I am sure the Department is being careful.

We have set up a working group and study to identify and support potential UK zero-emissions shipping clusters, which could include the Thames. There is also Government support for clean maritime innovation in the United Kingdom, including funding of £1.3 million to support clean maritime innovation through Maritime Research and Innovation UK—MarRI-UK. There is grant support for early-stage research projects related to clean maritime, and a Clean Maritime Award to celebrate leaders in the field of emissions reduction. A maritime emissions regulation advisory service—MERAS—will be in place by 2020 to provide dedicated support to innovators using zero-emissions propulsion technologies. The clean maritime plan also contains a number of zero-emissions shipping ambitions and outlines the Government’s vision for the future of zero-emissions shipping and the milestones that will need to be achieved to reach it.

The clean maritime plan was launched on the Thames, with the port of London’s first hybrid tug alongside, and it is intended to be the first step in a journey to deliver zero-emissions shipping in the UK. The Government welcome and encourage Thames stakeholders to engage with the MarRI-UK innovation fund, and to consider how our plans for green finance could support emissions reductions on the river. As I highlighted at the start of my response, the call for evidence is currently open and seeks to gather information on emissions from vessels operating domestically in UK waters, including inland waterways such as the Thames. The outcome will play a key role in formulating future policies.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked about what could be done to have a London-wide framework for emissions standards. It is interesting to consider how we can make that work together—particularly with the Mayor for London, but also with the Department for Transport. My understanding is that, with all the different bodies to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, the Government do not deem it appropriate to have a single body undertake such work in the future. I appreciate that it might appear complex, but once we have the information to understand the source of emissions, it will allow the bodies that already work together rather effectively to do that even more, with the evidence to support that work.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to existing cruise liners. I recognise that the proposals for Enderby wharf have been dropped, but it is important to stress that we need to make changes at the IMO, which is an international organisation, and to the international nature of shipping, so that, as an island nation, we can continue to make sensible progress as we go forward.

By sharing some of the detail of the clean maritime plan—the hon. Gentleman referred to aspects of technology that he hopes will come along further—I hope I have addressed many of the points that he raised. I can assure him that the Government are committed to addressing emissions from shipping, including both our international and domestic fleets.

Before the Minister brings her remarks to a close—I appreciate the complexity and cross-departmental nature of this issue, so I am happy for her to write to me—it would be good to have some idea about what dialogue is happening between her Department, DFT, the Mayor of London and the Deputy Mayor on the issue of a single regulator. I note what she says about the Government’s position, but they are convinced that this is the way forward.

Well, I will not commit to write to the hon. Gentleman personally, but I will share his request with the Maritime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). I know she is a responsive Minister and will do her best to work on that.

We have taken concerted action internationally to tackle emissions from ships. We are working actively to better understand the domestic issues in order to inform future policy decisions. I invite the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and indeed all hon. Members who represent constituencies along the Thames, to participate in the call for evidence that will shape our next steps.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.