Dutch satellite to monitor emissions from sea-going vessels

Is it possible to measure whether an individual ship is emitting too many pollutants into the atmosphere? That is a question the Netherlands Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) wants to answer. The first results from research ILT is doing with the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) and the universities of Leiden and Wageningen, are promising. The researchers have been able to pinpoint the emissions of individual ships; a heavier plume was measured from bigger and faster ships. Being able to assess these differences is necessary for determining whether a ship is adhering to international regulations.

Satellietbeelden zwavelmeting zeevaart Middellandse zee
©ILT
Satellite images of measurement results in the Central Mediterranean.

Less emissions

From 2020, sea-faring vessels – including those far out at sea – have to meet much lower emission standards for sulphur dioxide. And as of 2021, stricter emission norms for nitrogen oxides take effect for new-built ships on the North and Baltic Seas. ILT oversees compliance to these international rules for the Netherlands, but has limited means to monitor a ship once it has left port. If satellites are able to play a part, this will be a massive step forward in global monitoring and enforcement. It will lead to better compliance to air quality regulations, as well as encouraging fairer competition in merchant shipping.

Weather conditions

In the first research study, individual ships’ nitrogen dioxide emissions were monitored under ideal conditions. Daily and global measuring of all vessels’ emissions, and whether they comply with standards, is a massive challenge. Weather conditions or measuring from vessels that sail close to each other is difficult. Moreover, measuring sulphur dioxide is a lot harder than the nitrogen dioxide measured during the research. These are some of the challenges further research will focus on.

Collaboration

In early 2020, ILT started a project aimed at using satellite imagery to monitor the tens of thousands of sea vessels world-wide sailing far out of view from regulators. Ships are required to use cleaner but more expensive fuels, and new-built vessels have to be equipped with very clean engines. For this project, ILT works with a variety of partners amongst which the universities of Leiden and Wageningen, and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI).

Satellietbeelden zwavelmeting zeevaart Middellandse zee
©ILT
Satellite images of measurement results in the Central Mediterranean. The more red the color, the higher the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide. In the middle of the image thin colored (yellow / red) lines are visible; ships on maritime routes. To see further: the coastlines of Italy and Sicily, Greece (top) and North Africa (bottom) with urban and industrial areas such as (from left to right) Tunis, Tripoli, Benghazi and Athens.