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December, 2016:

Editorial: Global sulphur cap in 2020

It is now finally settled that the global cap of 0.5 per cent for the sulphur content of the fuel oil used by ships will apply from 1 January 2020. This is a significant reduction from the current cap of 3.5 per cent and it will cut shipping SO2 emissions by nearly 80 per cent, or around 9 million tonnes per year, and prevent more than 100,000 annual premature deaths.

Discussions about restricting air pollution from international shipping started towards the end of the eighties within the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN body, and agreement was reached in 1997 on an air pollution annex to its MARPOL Convention. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a very feeble document with very timid requirements.

After several more years of talks but very little action, the IMO in 2008 finally agreed and unanimously adopted sulphur standards that would significantly reduce the well-documented adverse health and environmental impacts of shipping. However, a main drawback was that the new global 0.5 per cent sulphur cap was to be implemented only 12 years later, by 2020. Moreover, due to industry pressure, it was stated that the 2020 implementation date could be postponed, subject to availability of compliant fuel.

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.

With the stricter global sulphur cap now coming into force in 2020 – more than 30 years after the issue was first raised in the IMO – it is hoped that both shipping and the oil industry will embrace the IMO standards and focus their attention on establishing effective systems for compliance monitoring and enforcement.

The nature of shipping as an international business has been used as an excuse or manoeuvre to delay environmental action for much too long and it is not acceptable for the shipping industry to keep on transferring the cost of its pollution to society at large.

It must not be forgotten that the measures agreed so far in IMO for reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) are totally inadequate and will not result in any significant reductions in total ship NOx emissions even within the next 10–15 years. Every effort must therefore be made to markedly strengthen the weak NOx emission standards, and to make them applicable to both existing and new ships.

To ensure an organised gradual phase-in of lower-sulphur fuels, to encourage the use of the best environmental techniques, and to speed up the introduction of clean and renewable fuels, the IMO standards should be complemented by economic instruments, such as emission charges.

In addition, the EU and its member states should follow the example of the United States and Canada and designate all sea areas around Europe as “full” Emission Control Areas, i.e. covering all the major air pollutants (sulphur, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides).

Shipping is also a growing source of greenhouse gases, but there is so far no agreement on capping the industry’s CO2 emissions. An IMO meeting in October agreed only to monitor ship CO2 emissions, and to delay until at least 2023 any agreement on a CO2 reduction target. A proposed review of ship energy efficiency targets was also delayed.

It should be obvious that the longer the shipping industry delays climate measures, the steeper the emission cuts will have to be to keep within the world’s rapidly shrinking carbon budget.

Christer Ågren

IMO confirms 2020 date

Implementing the global rule to restrict the sulphur content in marine fuel oil to 0.5 per cent will cut shipping SO2 emissions by nearly 80 per cent and prevent more than 100,000 annual premature deaths.

A decision to introduce a global 0.5 per cent cap on the content of sulphur in marine fuel by 2020 was originally agreed by the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) back in 2008. At the same time, it was also agreed that a review should be undertaken by 2018 in order to assess whether sufficient compliant fuel oil would be available to meet the 2020 date. If not, the date might be deferred to 2025. That review was completed this summer, and concluded that sufficient compliant fuel oil would be available to meet the fuel oil requirements by 1 January 2020.

The IMO’s fuel oil availability assessment study1 was submitted to its Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), and discussed at its 70th session held in London on 24–28 October.

The current global sulphur limit for marine heavy fuel oil (HFO) is set at 3.5 per cent, which is 3,500 times higher than the limit for fuel used in cars and trucks in the EU. As a result, shipping is one of the world’s biggest emitters of sulphur dioxide (SO2), an air pollutant that causes premature deaths from lung cancer and heart and respiratory diseases as well as acidification of sensitive natural ecosystems.

According to the third IMO greenhouse gas study from July 2014, annual emissions of SO2 from international shipping amount to approximately 10.6 million tonnes, or approximately 12 per cent of global SO2 emissions from anthropogenic sources. Moreover, international shipping emits some 18.6 million tonnes of nitrogen oxides (NOx), equal to 13 per cent of global anthropogenic NOx emissions.

Although the maximum allowed sulphur content is set at 3.5 per cent, the IMO’s sulphur monitoring scheme shows that global average sulphur content for marine HFO over the last few years has actually been around 2.5 per cent. This means that in practice the new 0.5 per cent limit will cut SO2 emissions from ships running on HFO by about 80 per cent.

The effects of introducing the 0.5 per cent sulphur cap in 2020 rather than delaying it to 2025 were analysed by a group of scientists from the United States and Finland and presented in another report2 submitted to the MEPC. Some of the key findings of this study were that:

  • Annual SO2 emissions will be cut by 8.5–9 million tonnes between 2020 and 2025, approximately a 77 per cent reduction in overall global SO2 emissions from international shipping.
  • Emissions of primary particulate matter (PM) will come down by 0.76–0.81 million tonnes per year, which equals a 50 per cent reduction.
  • The lowered emissions will lead to significant reductions in exposure to harmful air pollutants, especially in populated coastal areas, preventing more than 100,000 premature deaths per year. It is estimated that over the five-year period a total of 570,000 premature deaths will be avoided.
  • More than 90 per cent of these health benefits will take place in the Asia-Pacific region, Africa and Latin America. (Because the sea areas around Europe and North America already have stricter fuel sulphur standards, they will receive only relatively small additional health benefits from the global cap.)

The decision by the IMO to confirm 2020 as the implementation date for the 0.5 per cent global sulphur cap was taken by consensus, but it was certainly not uncontroversial. For example, oil industry associations led by IPIECA and shipping companies represented by BIMCO had sponsored the production of a separate fuel availability study, which was also submitted to the MEPC.

The official IMO report analysed three different demand scenarios – a base case as well as a low (-12%) and a high (+14%) demand case – and found that in all scenarios the refinery sector will be able to supply sufficient quantities of low-sulphur fuel from 2020 to meet the demand. On the other hand, while the report sponsored by industry acknowledged that the refining industry could meet the fuel volumes needed by 2020, it also stated that sticking to 2020 would “lead to severe strains on global oil markets” and concluded that “a full-on switch to the global sulphur standard in January 2020 does not look workable.”

Apart from the very significant health and environmental benefits of the sulphur emission reductions, the fact that in 2012 the European Union had already established a 0.5 per cent sulphur limit to apply from 2020 in its territorial seas, exclusive economic zones and pollution control zones is likely to have had quite some impact on the outcome of the debate. This encouraged EU countries to also argue in favour of 2020 as the implementation date for the global cap, and they were supported by among others the United States and Japan.

Commenting on the outcome, Bill Hemmings, shipping director at Transport & Environment, said: “This is a landmark decision and we are very pleased that the world has bitten the bullet and is now tackling poisonous sulphuric fuel in 2020. This decision reduces the contribution of shipping to the world’s air pollution impact from about 5 per cent down to 1.5 per cent and will save millions of lives in the coming decades. Now the focus should shift towards implementing this decision, which is a big issue since it’s not yet clear who should police ships on the high seas, and how.”

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim also welcomed the decision. “The reductions in SO2 emissions resulting from the lower global sulphur cap are expected to have a significant beneficial impact on the environment and on human health, particularly that of people living in port cities and coastal communities, beyond the existing emission control areas,” Mr. Lim said.

Further work to ensure effective implementation of the 2020 global sulphur cap will continue in the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR), which has it next meeting in January 2017.

Christer Ågren

1 IMO Document MEPC 70/INF.6 “Assessment of fuel oil availability – final report” (July 2016).
2 IMO Document MEPC 70/INF.34 “Study on the effects of the entry into force of the global 0.5% fuel oil sulphur content limit on human health” (August 2016).

T&E press release:…

IMO briefing:…

IMO sulphur regulation

IMO regulations governing sulphur emissions from ships are included in Annex VI to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL Convention). Under the new global cap, from 1 January 2020 ships will have to use fuel oil on board with a sulphur content of no more than 0.5 per cent, as compared to the current limit of 3.5 per cent that has been in effect since 1 January 2012. Fuel oil used on board includes use in main and auxiliary engines and boilers.

Ships can meet the requirement by using lower-sulphur compliant fuel oil or other types of fuel, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) or methanol. Alternatively, ships can meet the sulphur emission requirements by using approved exhaust gas cleaning systems (scrubbers), which remove the sulphur emissions before they are released into the atmosphere. The new global 0.5 per cent cap will not change the 0.1 per cent sulphur limit that has applied since 1 January 2015 in Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA) established by the IMO.