MEPs OK law on cutting sulphur content in shipping fuels


The European Parliament has approved legislation to slash sulphur levels in shipping fuels, a move environmentalists say will help prevent thousands of deaths linked to maritime pollution.

The new law puts the European Union in line with the upper limit of 0.5% sulphur content in fuels set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and will apply in principle to all EU seas by 2020. The previous limit was 3.5%.

Parliament approved the measure by an overwhelming vote yesterday (11 September).

As part of the new law, an even sterner limit of 0.1% sulphur content will be imposed by 2015 for ships within so-called sulphur emissions control areas (SECAs) in the Baltic and North seas, and the English Channel.

Finnish MEP Satu Hassi (Greens), who wrote the environment committee’s report on the issue, told EURACTIV the “uncertainties are now gone” for what the EU is doing to reduce pollution from shipping.

“Tightened rules will have a big improvement in protecting health,” she said.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2), emitted when sulphur-containing fuels are burned, is a principle cause of acid rain, which damages plants and corrodes roofs, cars and historical landmarks.

Hassi said so-called “secondary small particles” from sulphur emissions have been linked to lung and cardiovascular problems. She said anyone suffering from these conditions “should be very happy” with the new law.

Hassi said the next step will be for the upper limit of 0.1%, currently only applicable to the SECA regions, to be implemented across the EU.

Industry wary of fuels sea-change

Patrick Verhoeven, secretary-general of the European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO), a shipping industrial group, told EURACTIV the new legislation was “probably the best political compromise”, but that he would be looking into how shipping companies cope with the change.

Verhoeven expressed his satisfaction with the compromise, compared to an original Parliament proposal, which he said was “more radical.”

“The process [for SECA regions] was triggered by a Baltic commission. It is a bit premature to have 0.1% for all of the EU”, he said.

Verhoeven also expressed concerns over the availability of low sulphur fuels and that the legislation could encourage a modal shift back to road transport if shipping fuel prices rise too high.

He said, however, that rising prices could be mitigated by the growing market for low sulphur fuels, but he doubted the efficacy of liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a ready-made replacement.

“The problem is the perception of LNG as an alternative source, in terms of safety. Safety precautions taken for that are huge.”

Safeguards to keep shipping afloat

Under the legislation, shipping companies that use exhaust-gas cleaning systems, or “scrubbers”, will be able to use fuels with higher sulphur content as long as SO2 emissions stay under the agreed limit.

Verhoeven said some ESPO ports had already installed such scrubber equipment and LNG bunkering stations.

EU member states will be able to offer shipping companies state aid for such equipment, a change the European Commission views as an “investment cost.” However, governments will not be allowed to issue state aid for higher quality fuel with a lower sulphur content.

Hassi dismissed what she termed the “very loud public discussions” in Finland, Sweden and Estonia over the potential costs to the shipping industry, saying the “economic benefits from improved health will be far bigger than costs from emissions reductions.”

She said cost benefit analyses suggest the net economic value will be “at least double”, if SO2 emissions are curbed, adding: “More reasonable cost analyses estimate a benefit of ten times”.

The European Environmental Bureau and Transport & Environment (T&E), environmental campaign groups, released a joint statement expressing their satisfaction with the Parliament's approval of the legislation. 

The statement said it will "help cut back pollution by significantly decreasing the amount of dirty sulphur allowed in marine fuels."

A T&E shipping policy analyst, Antoine Kedzierski, called it a "very encouraging first step", saying the EU needed to "follow the USA and Canada by making the entire EU coastline a low-SO2 and low NOx[nitrogen oxide] zone."

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.

  • By 2015: limit of 0.1% sulphur for fuels used in SECA regions will be enforced.
  • 2017: IMO to decide if other seas receive a five-year postponement.
  • By 2020: All EU seas to reduce sulphur content in maritime fuels to 0.5%


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