The River Thames is central to London’s identity and development as a capital city, contributing every day in trade, jobs, tourism and transportation. Since 2015, the Port of London Authority (PLA) has been working with stakeholders to develop the Thames Vision programme, which lays out a 20-year view of the river’s future at the heart of a growing city.

The latest announcement, made in June, saw PLA teaming up with the Mayor of London and Transport for London (TfL) to develop an air quality strategy aimed at increasing the green credentials of the river’s traffic.

The project involves three separate research streams: a look into the implementation of shore-side power, which allows ships to turn off their engines and plug into an electrical grid while at berth; comparable journey emissions monitoring; and a first-of-its-kind air inventory for the Thames.

“This research is on an unprecedented scale for the UK,” said PLA chief executive Robin Mortimer. “Individually the techniques are tried and tested, but we are bringing them together to create a detailed picture of vessel emissions on the Thames. This will give us the data we need to develop the first air quality strategy for the river.”

The first air inventory for the Thames

The PLA is tasked with ensuring navigational safety along the 95 miles of the tidal Thames, as well as protecting its unique marine environment.

The new air quality plan is being developed in collaboration with operators Cory Riverside Energy, Thames Shipping and MBNA Thames Clippers, as well as energy management firm Schneider Electric and environmental consultant Aether.

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The first research project looked into the possibility to develop shore-side power at specific sites along the river.

Shore-side electricity (SSE), also known as “cold-ironing”, allows ships to turn off their engines and plug into an electrical grid while at berth. Currently only deployed in around 10 ports worldwide, it has the potential to reduce pollutants by about 90% and greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, according to research by the European Commission.

Renewable energy consultant Ecofys found that SSE offers the potential to mitigate 800,000t of CO2 emissions if all seagoing and inland ships in European harbours would use SSE by 2020, but the total CO2 emission reduction depends on how the electricity used is produced onshore. Furthermore, all of the noise produced by a ship would also be eliminated by using a shore connection system, and the technology is fully compliant with MARPOL 6 regulations.

To investigate this, PLA partnered with Schneider Electric, which currently has over 30 shore power installations worldwide, including in ports in California and the new Kalibaru Container Terminal in Jakarta.

“Shore-side electricity allows ships to turn off their engines and plug into an electrical grid while at berth.”

This is not the first time SSE was considered for London. Campaigners opposing the proposed Enderby Wharf cruise terminal in Greenwich argued that on-shore power could help prevent pollution from cruise ships that would otherwise run their engines 24 hours a day in a densely populated area. The idea was since repeatedly dismissed by Greenwich Council as expensive and impractical.

The second project focuses on comparable journey emissions monitoring, which will gather data on regular river-borne journeys of both passengers and cargo and contrast it with the number of vehicles used and routes needed to make the same journey through London’s road network.

According to partner company Aether, the inventory will be based on previous work undertaken in the Netherlands, including at Europe’s largest port in Rotterdam, which uses real-time ship and boat movements to build up a complex emissions profile.

“This will allow the development of a realistic baseline for London river traffic emissions, the exploration of mitigation options and will feed into the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory,” Aether said in a May press release.

At the moment, there is no available data to evaluate the emissions from inland vessels and their impact on London’s worsening air quality problem.

Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that London is breaking legal and World Health Organization (WHO) limits for NO2, and WHO limits for particulate matter. Most air pollution in London is caused by road transport, of which diesel vehicles are the most polluting.

The three research projects are due to be completed in the early autumn and the full strategy is expected to be published before the end of the year.

Conservation of the river in years to come

The air quality announcement comes six months after the PLA introduced the UK’s first port charges discount for cleaner cargo ships at the start of this year, a move much celebrated across the industry. The discount is available for ships that exceed international emissions standards set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in a scoring scheme run by the World Ports Climate Initiative.

According to the PLA, the discount is “suitably high that significant improvements need to be made in order to achieve it”, and bears similarities with similar initiatives taken at other European ports.

More recently, the UK Government’s Department for Transport committed £6m towards funding trials of innovative energy saving devices, such as new propellers, rotor sails and on-board waste heat recovery, in an attempt to achieve a “zero-emissions sector”.

The new measures come as climate change poses further challenges to protecting the Thames, including the high-priority flood risk areas throughout the Thames Estuary. The Environment Agency warned that there will need to be continuing investment in both hard and soft flood defences along the estuary in the years to come.

“The strategy sets out to improve water quality, reduce litter, protect and enhance biodiversity.”

It also comes at a time when the capital is growing in population, traffic and demand, with increased pressures on every transport network, including the river. Looking towards 2025, the PLA hopes to improve navigational access to the Port of London, double the number of people travelling by river up to 20 million commuter and tourist trips every year, and make more efficient use of piers and river space.

On the environmental and conservation side, the strategy sets out to improve water quality, reduce litter, protect and enhance biodiversity and “encourage the uptake of new and green technologies to reduce the port’s environmental impact”.

Currently, 92% of the PLA’s area is covered by environmental designations, but at the same time, up to 300t of rubbish is recovered from the Thames each year, with the amount of plastic bottles growing year on year.

Some of these issues, including pollution threats to the fish living in river waters, will be tackled by the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a 25km sewer tunnel that is hoped to protect the river from further pollution. According to its strategy, PLA hopes to build and bring the tunnel into operation by 2021.

“We anticipate more trade, more passenger journeys, more sport and recreation and more people wanting to enjoy the improved environment along the tidal river,” Mortimer said. “Our ambition is for this growth to be sustainable in the widest sense.”