Offsetting of shipping NOx cuts?

Offsetting – more bureaucracy than real emission reductions. Photo: Jared and Corin / BY-SA

Emission control areas in the Baltic Sea and North Sea will cut NOx from shipping, but would make only a very limited contribution to member states’ NOx emission reduction targets for 2030.

The European Commission’s proposal for a revised National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive introduces some new flexibility provisions, one of which offers member states the possibility to offset NOx, SO2 and PM2.5 emission reductions achieved in the international shipping sector against emissions of the same pollutants from land-based sources in the same year.

According to the Commission, the proposal aims to promote a cost-effective achievement of the national emission reduction commitments. An additional motive may be to encourage member states to more actively engage in the establishment of more emission control areas (ECA), primarily NOx ECAs in the Baltic Sea and North Sea. Of course, an unavoidable side effect of any offsetting is that it allows higher emissions from domestic sources in those member states that opt in.

In its proposal, the Commission lists a number of conditions that must be met:

  • The ship emission cuts must occur in member states’ territorial waters or exclusive economic zones;
  • Member states must have effective monitoring and inspection systems in place;
  • Only new shipping measures (i.e. that go beyond EU standards) can be used; and
  • Member states can offset at most 20 per cent of the ship emission cuts.

A new study by the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) has calculated how the establishment of NOx ECAs in the Baltic Sea and North Sea would contribute to NOx emission reductions in 2030 that could be used by member states in offsetting, assuming that the flexibility proposal is adopted.

It should be noted that there is considerable uncertainty regarding ship emissions data, because emission inventories use different approaches, methodologies and assumptions. Emissions of NOx from international shipping in the North Sea, for example, have been estimated at between 470 and 660 kilotons in 2009. Projections for 2030 result in figures of between 450 and 640 kt, coming down to 270–460 kt if it is assumed that NOx ECA standards are introduced in 2016.

Introduction of NOx ECAs in the North Sea and Baltic Sea by 2016 is estimated to result in annual ship emission reductions of 200 to 300 thousand tonnes in 2030, and would have the biggest impact for Estonia, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, which could meet between 4 and 9 per cent of their NOx targets for 2030 through emission cuts in the shipping sector. For Latvia, Finland and the UK, the results were between 1 and 4 per cent, and for Belgium, Lithuania, Germany, France and Poland below 1 per cent.

The countries with the highest potential for offsetting are those having relatively small targets for NOx emission reductions under the NEC Directive proposal, in combination with relatively large ship NOx reductions within their exclusive economic zone.

According to the study, these contributions should be considered the maximum – using other emission inventories would result in lower contributions. Moreover, postponing the introduction of the NOx ECA by five years (i.e. until 2021) could cut its contribution to the targets by nearly half.

The study did not investigate potential impacts on air quality (changes in concentrations and deposition of air pollutants) of applying the offsetting scheme, nor its economic implications.

Discussions so far in the Council and the European Parliament indicate that the proposed shipping flexibility will be removed from the revised NEC Directive. For example, the Parliament’s Rapporteur, Julie Girling, has said that the proposal is “convoluted, burdensome to apply, and conflicts with the Commission’s better regulation agenda” and that it discriminates against landlocked countries.

Christer Ågren

The study: The potential contribution of a nitrogen emission control area to national targets under a revised EU national emission ceiling directive (April 2015). By P. Hammingh, J-P. Jalkanen, L. Johansson & J. de Ruiter. Published jointly by Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI).

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