EU moving towards stricter ship sulphur standards

Can we hope for a Disney ending to the sulphur story? Photo: Rennett Stowe / Creative Commons

The European Parliament’s environment committee wants EU ship fuel sulphur legislation to be tougher than the global standards agreed by the International Maritime Organization.

Seagoing ships burn extremely dirty fuels that on average contain almost 3000 times as much sulphur as road fuel in Europe, resulting in high emissions of air pollutants that are particularly harmful both to human health and the environment. Shipping air pollution is estimated to cause around 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, and the emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) cause widespread acidification of soil and freshwater ecosystems and damage to biodiversity.

On 16 February the environment committee of the European Parliament voted in support of a European Commission proposal from July 2011 to implement the international sulphur standards agreed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in October 2008 into EU legislation.

During the weeks leading up to the vote, political groups that represent a wide majority in the Parliament agreed and signed up to a set of compromise proposals. This wide support was reflected in the vote, in which the report by the Parliament’s rapporteur, Satu Hassi, (Greens/EFA, Finland) was adopted with 48 votes in favour and 15 against.

In brief, the environment committee voted in support of:

  • That the stricter rules that already apply in the sulphur emission control areas (SECAs), namely the Baltic Sea and the North Sea including the English Channel, should be further tightened in line with IMO standards and also in line with the proposal from the Commission. This means a lowering of the current limit of 1.0 per cent to 0.1 per cent by 2015.
  • The Commission’s proposal to set a 0.1 per cent sulphur limit for passenger ships operating between European Union ports beginning in 2020. The present EU limit is 1.5 per cent.
  • That fuels used in all EU coastal waters (within 12 nautical miles) shall not exceed 0.1 per cent sulphur as from 2015. This is a new approach, since a coastal water limit was not included in the Commission’s proposal.
  • Lowering the sulphur limit in EU seas outside of sulphur control areas to 0.5 per cent in 2015 and 0.1 per cent in 2020, from the current level of 3.5 per cent. This goes further than the Commission’s proposal, which was limited to incorporating into European law the IMO agreement to reduce the global sulphur limit to 0.5 percent in 2020.
  • That the Commission should assist with the groundwork towards designating new SECAs in the Mediterranean, North Atlantic and Black Sea.

Some members of the environment committee had tabled proposals for improving enforcement of the law by requiring a minimum level of inspections or installation of equipment for continuous emissions monitoring, but these proposals were not approved.

Satu Hassi commented: “The committee has today voted to endorse tougher limits on sulphur emissions from shipping, in line with the internationally agreed IMO standards. Crucially, it also voted to extend limits to areas outside the designated sulphur emissions control areas. This would not only deliver significant health benefits, it would also ensure a more harmonised environment for the economic actors affected.”

Environmental groups welcomed the outcome. Antoine Kedzierski at Transport & Environment said: “This vote brings Europe a step closer to a significant improvement in air quality. It’s great to see the parliament telling the EU to catch up with the United States by requiring the lowest sulphur fuels to be used near our coastlines.”

Recently the United States and Canada introduced legislation – through the designation of a combined sulphur and nitrogen oxides emission control area – that forces all ships operating around its coastline to use fuels with maximum 0.1 per cent sulphur content from 2015. The European Parliament’s environment committee now wants to introduce such a zone all around Europe, albeit applying only within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) of the coast, instead of North America’s 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres).

Louise Duprez at the European Environment Bureau said: “Now member states should give their full support to these changes so we can start cleaning up dirty ship emissions around our coasts.”

Legislative proposals must be adopted by the European Council and the Parliament before they can become law, and the full Parliament is scheduled to vote on the resolution in May. Member states meeting in the Council will also need to approve the rules, and here discussions are ongoing but no date has yet been set for discussions at ministerial level.

There is a possible fast-track decision process through a first reading agreement. This would require negotiations between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission in the coming months, and could lead to final EU approval by summer.

Christer Ågren

Information: See also articles in Acid News 3, 2011 pp. 18-19 and 4, 2011 pp. 1-5.
European Parliament press release.
EEB and T&E press release.


International ship emission regulations

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), under ANNEX VI of MARPOL 73/78 (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships), in October 2008 unanimously adopted stricter controls on ships’ emissions of air pollutants.

The global fuel sulphur limit is currently 3.50% and shall be lowered to 0.50% by 2020 (or 2025, subject to a review in 2018). In specially designated sulphur emission control areas (SECAs), the current limit is set at 1.00% sulphur. It will be tightened to 0.10% by 2015.

There are currently only two existing SECAs in Europe, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, including the English Channel. In addition most of the coastal waters – within 200 nautical miles of the coast – of USA and Canada have been designated as “combined” ECAs for both sulphur and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

It should be noted that exhaust gas cleaning systems (e.g. scrubbers) or alternative fuels (e.g. gas or biofuels) that achieve equivalent sulphur emission reductions may be used as an alternative to low-sulphur fuel oils to fulfil the sulphur requirements.

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