Baltic Sea and North Sea move towards becoming NOx Emission Control Areas

In March the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), which consists of the nine Baltic Sea coastal countries, and the European Union, finally agreed to submit proposals to apply NOx emission limits for international ships in the Baltic Sea. 

This decision has been in the pipeline for the last five years, after an impact assessment was produced in 2010, but has repeatedly been postponed due primarily to opposition from Russia.

Emissions from international shipping are regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO₂), and indirectly also of particulate matter (PM), in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea have been regulated for the past ten years through the designation of these two sea areas as Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA).

However, setting stricter limits for emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) as well will require a specific designation as NOx ECAs, which can only be decided by the IMO after the countries surrounding the sea area in question make a formal request to that effect, including submitting an impact assessment.

Until now, only the North American and US Caribbean ECAs apply the stricter Tier III NOx limit1. Here, the stricter standard took effect from 1 January 2016 and applies to newly built ships delivered from that same date.

The fact that HELCOM has now decided to proceed with the submission of its NECA application for the Baltic Sea to the IMO opens the way for the North Sea countries to submit a similar application for the North Sea. A NECA impact assessment for the North Sea was prepared back in 2012, but no application was submitted pending a decision by HELCOM.

It is now expected that the impact assessments for both sea areas will be updated, and that formal submissions to the IMO will be made in July, in order for these applications to be discussed at a meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee in October this year. A final decision on the new NECAs is likely to follow in 2017, and the stricter Tier III NOx standard would then apply to all newly built ships as from January 2021, i.e. with a five-year delay as compared to the North American NECA.

The emissions of NOx from international shipping in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea are significant – in 2010 they were estimated to amount to around 900,000 tonnes, more than twice the amount currently emitted jointly from all land-based sources in Denmark, Sweden and Finland combined. While NOx emissions from land-based sources have been halved in the EU over the last 20 years, those from shipping have continued to rise.

Reducing ship NOx emissions will bring significant health benefits, as it will lower the concentrations of the three most important health-damaging air pollutants: PM, nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and ozone (O₃). According to the 2012 impact assessment for the North Sea, the health benefits from NOx emission reductions were valued at up to €1,900 million annually in 2030, while the costs were estimated at €280 million for that same year. This would imply a total net benefit to society of around €1,600 million, and that the health benefits alone are up to seven times larger than the costs. (Note that in this study it was assumed that the NECA emission limits would apply from 2016, i.e. five years earlier than is currently expected.)

Moreover, the NOx reductions will bring environmental benefits by reducing eutrophication of sensitive terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The Baltic Sea has for many decades suffered from serious eutrophication problems, and ship emissions are a major source of airborne deposition of nitrogen to this sea. According to HELCOM, the Baltic Sea NECA could significantly reduce nitrogen input to the Baltic Sea – by around 7,000 tonnes per year. A North Sea NECA is likely to contribute additional improvements.

A major shortcoming of the NECA standard is that it applies only to newly built ships. As the average lifetime of ships is between 25 and 30 years, there will be a considerable time lag until all ships actually meet the Tier III emission standard. This makes it vital to push for an early introduction of the NECA standard, and for the consideration of additional measures that also target emission reductions from existing ships.

Christer Ågren

Sources:  HELCOM press release 10 March 2016; Impact assessment for NECAs in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, summarised in Acid News No. 1/2011 and No. 3/2012.

1) As from January 2011, all new ships globally have to fulfil IMO’s Tier II NOx standard, meaning that these ships will emit about 15–20 per cent less than the older ones. The stricter Tier III standard is set to cut NOx emissions by about 80 per cent, but will only apply to new ships (as from the effective date of the NECA) and only while operating in NECAs.

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