Just when I was beginning to doubt that voluntary action by major emitters could truly reduce pollution, a new study [subs. req.] has shown that voluntarily slowing commercial container ships near-shore (and switching to low-sulfur fuel) can reduce some major pollutants by up to 90%.

Container ships approaching land from the open ocean bring a number of environmental problems with them, like acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide, lung-damaging particulate matter, and haze-forming black carbon, all emitted within a few miles of people living near shipping lanes and ports.

New regulations issued by the California Air Resources Board last year forced large container ships to shift to low-sulfur fuel within 24 miles of the coast and also asked for shipping companies to voluntarily reduce their speed, an action which reduces emissions by burning less fuel. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce and provider of the National Weather Service) led a consortium of academics and regulators in measuring pollutants before and after the regulation and voluntary action went into effect, an effort that seems so sensible (wouldn’t everyone want to know whether the new rules work?) but for the fact that it is rarely done.

Perhaps the best news here is that these researchers not only found that sulfur dioxide and particulate matters decreased as expected – by 91% and 90%, respectively – but also found that black carbon (a pollutant not originally targeted by the regulation or the voluntary measure) fell by 41%.

This is effectiveness research at its finest, as one of the scientists involved describes (my emphasis):

“This study gives us a sense of what to expect in the future, for the people of California, the nation, and even the globe,” said Daniel Lack, chemist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. “This really is where science gets fun – a study with first-rate institutions, equipment and people, probing the effects of policy. It’s important to know that the imposed regulations have the expected impacts. The regulators want to know, the shipping companies want to know, and so do the people.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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