SECAs all around Europe
In 2008, after twenty years of talks but very little action, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) finally agreed on sulphur standards that will significantly reduce the well-documented adverse health and environmental impacts of shipping.
The decision was unanimously adopted by 95 Parties to the IMO, including the 22 EU member states present, and it became legally binding when it entered into force on 1 July 2010.
In order to incorporate new IMO standards into EU law and to ensure their proper and harmonised enforcement by all EU member states, the European Commission proposed on 15 July 2011 legislation to revise the existing directive on the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels.
A group of European industry and shipowner organisations has strongly criticised the Commission's proposal, however, especially the 0.1 per cent sulphur standard that shall apply in designated Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs), namely the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, from 2015.
Usually industry favours international agreements, especially when it comes to sectors of a global nature, such as shipping and aviation. This is due partly to a perceived need for harmonisation, but also because it normally takes decades to settle such agreements and the standards arrived at are often set at very low levels of ambition.
From this perspective, it would be logical for industry to embrace the IMO standards, rather than criticise them, and to welcome the Commission's proposal to ensure a harmonised enforcement. But instead these industry groups are calling on EU policy-makers to postpone or even ignore the IMO agreement.
Attempts to weaken the global IMO agreement would be in vain and would surely also seriously undermine the credibility of the EU and the member states in IMO and in any other international treaties. In July 2010, the European Commission's President Barroso rather politely stated to the complaining industry group that he "does not believe it is a realistic option to call into question the agreement that has been reached at international level."
The nature of shipping as an international business has been used as an excuse or manoeuvre to delay environmental action for too long, and it is not acceptable for the shipping industry to keep on transferring the cost of its pollution to society at large.
Several studies, including the Commission's cost-benefit analysis for the proposed directive, have demonstrated that reducing ship emissions would be cost-effective in itself, as well as economically profitable for society. Just implementing the SECA standard is estimated to save some 12,000 lives per year in 2015, rising to 16,000 lives per year in 2020. Clearly, as an absolute minimum, the IMO regulations must be fully implemented.
To ensure an organised gradual phase-in of low-sulphur fuels, to encourage the use of the best techniques, and to speed up the introduction of cleaner fuels and ships, the mandatory environmental standards need to be complemented by economic instruments, such as emission charges.
Moreover, the EU and its member states should follow the example of the United States and Canada and designate all sea areas around Europe (the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) as "full" Emission Control Areas, i.e. covering all the major air pollutants (sulphur, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides).