Nearly 39 million people live near ports and air pollution is a recurring political issue in those communities. How do we know if trucks, ships, or port infrastructure are causing harm or if claims of pollution are overstated? Without accurate air pollution data, it is impossible to answer these questions and efficiently target mitigation.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) provided $3 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help U.S. ports improve air quality by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This new funding can make a tremendous impact on ports and their surrounding communities, but not if the EPA follows current outdated methods. For decades, the EPA has relied on estimates and calculations; they need to focus on real-time emissions measurements.
Data is key to understanding air quality issues at and surrounding ports while informing how taxpayer funds are best allocated. When addressing air quality at ports, data can answer nuanced questions: How will port authorities decide which low-carbon projects are worth the investment? When funding projects, how will the EPA measure success if they lack a way to track real-time contributors to increases and decreases in GHG emissions?
In the past, it was difficult to answer these questions. SailPlan’s technology, for example, shows that estimates are wildly inaccurate and sometimes off by a factor of ten. Estimates cannot provide necessary insights for decision making about air pollution at ports and surrounding communities, but with new technologies, ports can pin-point and reduce sources of emissions.
With data-driven decision making, ports will acquire the best return on investment and efficiently decrease emissions. For example, microscale, real-time data can show which infrastructure is operating inefficiently. Perhaps a building’s HVAC system is malfunctioning or a refueling site is emitting unnecessary emissions. These insights are actionable and help ports make decisions about whether the infrastructure needs to be repaired (saving the port money) or replaced and electrified (justifying the investment).
While some may claim the EPA is already doing this, the reality is that the existing Ports Initiative provides outdated guidance for ports to calculate their emissions. Often, this means that ports calculate emissions by using input data including gallons of gasoline consumed — such rough calculations fail to answer questions about whether and where air pollution is occuring.
This calculation problem is rampant throughout industries, but with IRA funding, the EPA can help ports overcome the inaccuracies that have plagued other industries. Consider the Boston Consulting Group’s study of 1,290 companies, finding that only 9% of these companies can quantify their emissions accurately and 40% responded they had estimated errors in their calculations. The reason: emissions calculations include various assumptions — which present inconsistencies and bias across emissions reporting. These flawed calculations are troubling: Curbing extreme weather and reducing air pollution relies on data, but if the data is inaccurate, how are we reaching the right goals? Ports can improve with the resources the IRA has allocated to the EPA and investing in real-time emissions measurement technology.
Calculating emissions may be masking harms experienced by communities. Because of delayed reporting under the EPA’s approach, communities cannot act to prevent potential health issues. The EPA, however, should not put the burden on communities to protect themselves, rather, the agency should empower ports with accurate data.
Recently, supply chain issues caused excessive ship and truck idling at ports — real-time measurements would have provided communities with data necessary to measure the impact of these events. Calculations will never reveal the actual impact of these events while they are occuring, outdated sensor technology will not be granular enough to provide insights, and current EPA reporting requirements would delay that information for a given time period. In the future, we can do better.
This real-time data can also show the impacts to nearby communities and answer important questions: What types of GHGs are making their way into communities and are the amounts harmful? What infrastructure is emitting those GHGs? How can we reduce those GHGs? Communities of impact should know the types of GHGs entering their environment so they can protect themselves in the short-term as ports are working in the long-term to solve air pollution.
The EPA’s $3 billion IRA funding will be better spent with emissions measurement requirements. This data will also boost future spending on more effective technologies, fuels, and infrastructure.
Editor’s Note: Seaports Magazine is proud to feature the voices of a wide variety of thought leaders who care deeply about ports and supply chain resilience, funding, and success. This and forthcoming articles like it solely express the sentiments of the writer and may not reflect the beliefs of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) and its stakeholders or members.