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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

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