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.
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: https://www.transportenvironment.org/press/eu-action-shipping-emissions-…
IMO briefing: http://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/PressBriefings/Pages/MEPC-70-2020sulph…
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.