With excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide, a major pollutant, most cities in Germany are violating EU air quality standards. A groundbreaking project on the Rhine wants to change that.
Over the past five years, many German cities have introduced zones which only permit cars that are low in emissions. And they have built new bicycle lanes, promoted car-sharing, and bought low-emission buses for public transport services. But in cities like Cologne, cars are just half the problem.
"There are so many ships on the Rhine that the amount of air pollutants emitted by them is comparable to the amount of pollutants emitted by cars on the heavily used A3 autobahn in the east of Cologne," says Andreas Brandt of the state environment agency in the North Rhine-Westphalia.
Along the Rhine, the air is as polluted as on the highways. Here, the pink lines show high nitrogen dioxide levels
Ships may do better than trucks in terms of carbon emissions, but they are just as bad as trucks when it comes to emitting other air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide -an air pollutant that even in small amounts can irritate the respiratory system. It can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. The most prominent source of nitrogen dioxide tends to be diesel-fuelled cars. And a lot of the ships run on old engines that require diesel.
"Diesel is cheaper and more efficient," says Andreas Brandt, "so diesel is the fuel of choice for cargo and passenger ships."
Excessive amounts of nitrogen dioxide
As a result, nitrogen dioxide levels are high in Cologne. A measuring instrument located at one of the city's busiest intersections permanently shows nitrogen dioxide levels to be at 100 micrograms per cubic meter – well over the 40 micrograms per cubic meter set by the EU. Similar levels were recorded in other cities across Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The EU air quality standards that were established in the late nineties are not being respected, Janez Potocnik, the EU Commissioner for the Environment, said at the launch of the European Year of Air in January.
"The majority of member states are infringing EU law on air quality," he added.
In February, the European Commission rejected an application from Germany to have a deadline postponed and give countries more time - until 2015 - to bring their nitrogen dioxide levels down.
By rejecting the proposal, the commission ensured that over thirty regions were in breach of EU law. The commission has not yet said what it will do, but it could pursue formal infringement proceedings, including legal action at the European Court of Justice.
Piloting emission control system
This has not gone unnoticed. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has just launched a pilot project to encourage shipping firms to upgrade by installing an emissions control system.
The "Jan von Werth" - a passenger ship that does river cruises on the Rhine - is one of the first to try it out.
The exhaust of one of the ship's two motors is now being passed through a device that filters both fine particle emissions and nitrogen dioxides. It is hoped the system will cut nitrogen dioxide emissions by 70 percent and fine particle emissions by 90 percent.
Little political pressure
The pilot project is costing North Rhine-Westphalia's environment department 40,000 euros ($52,000).
But the price will likely fluctuate - even if shipping companies are willing to bear the costs themselves.
"Every motor and every engine room is different," says Brandt, "so this emissions control system would have to be modified for each ship, individually."
Even so, Brandt hopes ship operators will want to install the system on their vessels. He says there is a federal subsidy for companies buying low-emission motors.
North Rhine-Westphalia's environment minister, Johannes Remmel, has called on the European Union to come up with financial support programs for ship operators to invest in low-emission technologies. He is also calling for stricter limits on emissions to be imposed. But with an industry as competitive as this, and with its lobby firmly established, some say it is unlikely that stricter limits will come any time soon.