Tough new sulphur limits for shipping fuel will be phased in across EU waters as part of European Union efforts to free the air of toxic chemicals that shorten thousands of lives.
EU environment ministers backed the rules on Monday (29 October), in a final stage of the process before official publication of the law.
From 2015, the maximum sulphur content of shipping fuels will be cut by 90% to 0.1% in restricted Sulphur Emission Control Areas, which include some of Europe's busiest waters, versus 1% of mass now.
Outside the controlled areas, an International Maritime Organization limit of 0.5% will be mandatory in EU waters by 2020. That compares with the current 3.5% for cargo vessels and 1.5% for passenger ships.
Shipping fuels with a high sulphur content lead to emissions of sulphur dioxide and particulate matter. The sulphur dioxide causes health problems and acid rain. The microscopic particles can lead to life-threatening health-problems such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, European environment officials have said.
The European Commission has said it plans to review air quality laws next year to bring EU limits on pollution levels closer to the stricter World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on safe levels of pollutants.
While many pollutants are a relentless problem, EU rules have already reduced sulphur dioxide emissions.
Environmental campaigners say the new legislation is progress, but more is needed.
"Today's council decision on sulphur dioxide in marine fuels is an encouraging first step to clean up shipping emissions to air that cause 50,000 premature deaths every year in Europe," said Antoine Kedzierski, shipping specialist at Transport and Environment campaign group.
The shipping specialist for the environmental group, Transport and Environment, Antoine Kedzierski, said: "Today's Council decision on sulphur (SO2) in marine fuels is an encouraging first step to clean up shipping emissions to air that cause 50,000 premature deaths every year in Europe. But we must stress that it’s only a first step – there are a lot of emissions problems in shipping that still have to be tackled quickly, notably greenhouse gases and nitrogen oxides (NOx). When it comes to air pollution, the EU should follow the USA and Canada by making the entire EU coastline a low-SO2 and low-NOx zone, and by ensuring that emissions targets are properly met."
In July 2011, the European Commission proposed amendments to bring the 1999 marine fuels directive into compliance with standards set by a UN body, the International Maritime Organisation.
The IMO regulations took effect in 2010 and are designed to cut SO2 emissions in some of the world’s most congested ports and shipping lanes. Ships travelling in the designated maritime emissions areas had to use fuels with a sulphur content of less than 1% by mid-2010, and on the open sea 3.5% by this year.
Those restrictions fall to no more than 0.1% sulphur content by 2015 in the heavily travelled areas and 0.5% in other coastal areas.
The shipping industry supports lower emissions targets but says there are not enough low-sulphur fuels being produced to meet today's needs. Meanwhile, the Roundtable of International Shipping Associations says steady improvements in efficiency, ship design and the development of alternative fuels will lead to more environmentally friendly shipping.
- 2013: European Commission to propose revisions to air quality laws.
- By 2020: All EU seas to reduce sulphur content in maritime fuels to 0.5%.
Council of the EU
- Press release: Council backs cleaner marine fuel standards (29 Oct. 2012)