Sulphur emissions from shipping to be slashed

EU ship fuel sulphur standards are to be aligned with international standards, meaning that the global limit should come down to 0.5 per cent in 2020, and the stricter limit applied in sulphur emission control areas is to be further lowered to 0.1 per cent in 2015.

On 15 July the European Commission tabled a proposal for stricter control of harmful sulphur emissions from international shipping. The proposal incorporates global standards that were unanimously agreed three years ago by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) into EU law.

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said: "This proposal is an important step forward in reducing air emissions from the fast-growing maritime transport sector. It will help resolve the persistent air quality problems that continue to affect millions of Europeans."

With nearly half of Europe's population living in areas where EU air quality objectives are still not met, air pollution is one of the main environmental worries facing citizens.

European emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) from land-based sources have decreased significantly over the past 20-30 years. Without further action, ship emissions around Europe could exceed the total of EU land-based emissions by 2020, according to current trends (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Projected SO2 and NOx emissions for 2020 from EU land-based sources and from international shipping in European sea areas in the absence of additional control measures (kilotonnes).

Ships traditionally use heavy fuel oil with a sulphur content of up to 4.5 per cent for propulsion (although the global average ship fuel sulphur content is around 2.7 per cent), compared with an EU limit of 0.001 per cent for road fuels.

The proposed legislation revises an existing EU directive on the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels and incorporates the 2008 IMO standards into EU law to ensure their proper and harmonised enforcement by all EU member states. It will also improve the effectiveness of the IMO standards as they would be monitored and enforced under the EU regime, which is more effective than the international system.

Under the proposal, the maximum permissible sulphur content of marine fuels used in designated Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA), namely the Baltic Sea and the North Sea including the English Channel, will fall from the previous level of 1.5 per cent to 0.1 per cent, as of 1 January 2015. In other sea areas, a sulphur limit of 0.5 per cent will apply as from 1 January 2020, as compared to the previous maximum level of 4.5 per cent (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2: International standards for the maximum allowed sulphur content of marine fuels (per cent).

By extending the stricter 0.1 per cent sulphur standard to passenger ships outside of SECAs from 2020, the proposal goes beyond what is required by the IMO.

As an alternative to using low-sulphur fuels, ships will be allowed to use equivalent technologies such as exhaust gas cleaning systems or alternative fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG).

According to the Commission, this equivalence option will significantly lower compliance costs (by 50-88 per cent) and help promote innovative solutions.

The expected cost to the shipping industry of the new standards is between €2.6 billion and 11 billion per year in 2020, but these costs are far outweighed by public health savings of up to €34 billion/year. In addition, there are significant benefits related to environmental improvements, such as reduced acidification damage to ecosystems.

The lower bound of costs is based on ships fitting exhaust cleaning techniques (scrubbers), while the upper bound assumes a fuel switch to lower-sulphur distillates.

According to the Commission's Impact Assessment, the health benefits associated with full implementation of the IMO's 2008 standards are at least between €3 and €13 for every €1 spent, and the benefits are even greater for the SECAs, at least between €5 and €25 for every €1 spent.

The results of a public consultation showed that the overwhelming majority of respondents wanted more European sea areas to be designated as SECAs. Green groups want it for the much needed health and environmental benefits, and several industry groups – especially Nordic ones – want it on the grounds that an EU-wide SECA would address intra-sectoral competition issues.

While the Commission concludes that such an extension of the SECA coverage is likely to offer net benefits and address competitiveness concerns, it does not have the competence to propose this to the IMO – any such proposals must come from member states bordering the sea area in question. The same applies to designation of nitrogen oxides (NOx) Emission Control Areas. (There are currently no NOx ECAs in Europe, but the whole coastline around the USA and Canada – out to 200 nautical miles – has been designated as a combined SO2/NOx ECA.)

There have also been calls to introduce ship emissions standards for nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) into EU law. The Commission's response is that this could be considered in the future, and that it will continue to support member states in developing proposals for additional ECAs and emission limit values for submission to the IMO.

Experience with the implementation of existing legislation has shown that there is a need for a stronger monitoring and enforcement regime. In response to this, the proposal includes a more unified reporting and verification procedure, and sampling provisions aligned with international standards.

Fuel quality impacts not only the environment but is also important for ship safety, and the Commission concludes that "ultimately there may be a role for establishing mandatory fuel quality standards for marine fuels placed on the market in the EU", as this would help guarantee that the fuel actually conforms to the recognised international standards.

Responding to concerns from some industry groups about the expected increase in shipping costs, Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said: "Transposing into EU law the standards unanimously agreed in the IMO would be a step towards further improving the sustainability of waterborne transport. I am very glad that the proposal includes a variety of short and medium-term accompanying measures to help the sector face this challenge".

The Commission's Impact Assessment suggests that the European Commission and member states use and adapt existing public support instruments to assist industry in the transition towards the new standards, especially the SECA limit. This could include financial support to invest in new technologies such as exhaust gas cleaning systems and support wider supply and uptake of LNG as a fuel for ships.

The Commission have made it clear, however, that a delay in the 2015 SECA limit – as has been suggested by some industry groups – is not an option, neither at EU level nor attempting to push for a delay at the IMO.

Air pollutant emissions from ships have been estimated to cause 50,000 premature deaths a year in Europe, as well respiratory illnesses, aggravation of heart disease, and acidification of sensitive ecosystems with subsequent damage to biological diversity.

Not surprisingly, environmental organisations welcome the Commission's proposal: "With many ships using fuel over 3,500 times dirtier than car fuel we are pleased to finally see EU action on air pollution from ships," said Bill Hemmings from Transport & Environment.

However, the environmental organisations say that more should be done, and are calling on EU legislators to extend the stricter SECA sulphur standard of 0.1 per cent to all European seas.

With the current proposal this limit will apply only to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, while ships operating in the Mediterranean (which accounts for more than half of European ship emissions), in the North-eastern Atlantic and in the Black Sea will be exempt from this standard. Moreover, the same strict standard (0.1%) should also apply to all cruise and passenger ships as from 2015.

Nitrogen oxides emissions from ships are also great a concern, say the environmental organisations, but there are still no EU standards or EU measures in place for controlling their release.

Christer Ågren

The Commission proposal can be found at:


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Cruise line fined for breaching sulphur rules

A cruise ship operator has been fined EUR 30,000 for contravening European Union rules on the sulphur content of marine fuel. The 88,000 gross tonne Disney Magic was inspected this month while at berth in the Italian port of Naples, and it was found the ship was using a bunker fuel with a sulphur content in excess of an EU regulation that requires ships at berth to use fuel with a sulphur content of no more than 0.10 per cent, unless they are scheduled to be in port for less than two hours.

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