Apple: the next iMac would adopt a new design and an Apple Silicon processor this year

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Does the largest French container ship emit more CO2 than the entire French fleet?

It is 400 meters long and 59 meters wide and carries more than 20,000 containers on the bridge: Antoine de Saint Exupéry is currently the largest container ship under the French flag. The ship, operated since 2018 by the French company CMA CGM, crossed, Thursday, June 25, the Strait of Gibraltar in the direction of Southampton (United Kingdom).

Does the largest French container ship emit more CO2 than the entire French fleet?

But at what level does this heavyweight of the seas pollute? It would emit as much CO2 "as 55 million cars", according to figures that have been circulating for several years, and relayed in the media or on social networks. "40 million cars are circulating in France. [...] Rather, repatriate some factories to reduce the need for maritime transport!" reduce highway speed to 110 km / h. There are indeed 39.3 million vehicles in circulation in France and 52 million registered. This twitto then specifies in comment that this comparison with container ships does not in fact apply to carbon dioxide (CO2) but to sulfur dioxide (SO2, which is part of the group of sulfur oxides). So, true or fake? What are the real CO2 emissions figures for such a large ship? Are we talking about CO2 or SO2? We will explain everything to you.

For CO2, a figure 17,000 times higher than reality

Let us pose the calculation for CO2 emissions. According to the manufacturer's figures sent to France Bleu Normandie when it was inaugurated in Le Havre in September 2018, the Antoine de Saint Exupéry container ship emits 30 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometer and per "twenty foot equivalent" (in other words , per 6.1m long container). On deck, the ship can take 20,600 of these containers. The container ship therefore emits 618,000 grams (30 x 20,600) of CO2 per kilometer.

What about the cars side? Contacted by franceinfo, the Agency for the ecological transition (Ademe) estimates that the French car fleet (new and old) emits on average 193 g of CO2 per kilometer and per car.

Thus, for one kilometer traveled, the Antoine de Saint Exupéry container ship would emit as much CO2 as 3,202 cars. That is more than 17,000 times less than what the initial statement indicates.

Maritime transport less polluting than road transport

However, comparing a container ship to cars is irrelevant: the former carries heavy goods, while the latter carries passengers and reduced cargo. To see more clearly, let's take a look at the CO2 emissions per "tonne-kilometer" (that is to say for a tonne displaced per kilometer) in order to have a comparison at equal loads.

Questioned by Franceinfo, the company CMA CGM said that the container ship Antoine de Saint Exupéry "emits 3 grams of CO2 per kilometer and per tonne transported". On the road, a 40-ton articulated container truck alone produces 91.6 g of CO2 per tonne-kilometer, estimates Ademe in a guide published in 2012 (PDF), or thirty times more.

Rail transport, for its part, emits between 1.47 and 34.9 g per tonne-kilometer (depending on the density of the goods and the energy source used, still specifies Ademe). As for air freight transport, the emission figures are soaring: between 669 and 3,171 g of CO2 per tonne-kilometer, depending on the characteristics of the flight.

In total, it is therefore road transport that would emit the most CO2, with 1,460 million tonnes released into the atmosphere in 2015, compared to 867 for river and maritime transport of goods, indicates a report by the International Forum of transport (FIT) published in 2019. In other words, road freight would cause almost 57% of global CO2 emissions due to the transport of goods, compared to 33.6% for sea freight.

Sulfur oxides, these pollutants emitted by container ships

As we have said, the largest French container ship does not emit as much carbon dioxide as "55 million cars". But looking for the origin of these figures takes us on the trail of another pollution as dangerous: that caused by sulfur oxides (SOx), starting with sulfur dioxide (SO2) mentioned by the author of the tweet in comment. "The sulfur emissions from these [maritime] transport operations alone are responsible for around 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe," reports the France Nature Environment association.

In 2009, the Guardian (in English) as well as the Daily Mail (in English) wrote that about fifteen container ships were enough to produce as many sulfur oxides as the 760 million cars in circulation on the planet. A calculation based on the work of the American professor James Corbett, researcher at the University of Delaware. "Cars traveling 15,000 km per year emit approximately 101 grams of sulfur oxide during this period," writes The Guardian, compared to "5,200 tonnes" for the world's largest ships, which "operate approximately 280 days a year. "

A quick calculation therefore suggests that only one of these fifteen large ships would emit as much sulfur oxides as about 50 million cars. We fall, more or less, on the figures of our info, adding the SO2 / CO2 confusion.

"A simplistic calculation"

However, important information must be added. As the BBC reported in 2018, the claims of British newspapers are also wrong. At issue: a misinterpretation of the work of James Corbett.

The latter himself explains that this calculation was only an assumption, imagining what would be the situation "if the ships used a fuel of the worst authorized quality (...) and if all the cars used the most gasoline clean". James Corbett makes no secret of having sought a certain sensationalism behind such a result. "It was a simplistic calculation, says the BBC researcher, to draw public attention to the debates to make the ships cleaner, so that the shipbuilding industry would recognize [...] environmental performance of boats and reduce air pollution from ships. "

Developments have taken place under the aegis of the International Maritime Organization. Emission control zones have been in place since 2010 to reduce the sulfur content of container ship fuel. In the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel, the maximum authorized has been 0.1% since 2015, says Le Monde. In this case, a ship's sulfur emissions would be equivalent to that of a million cars today, the daily added.