A roadmap to cut shipping emissions in the Mediterranean

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The proposed Emission Control Area for Sulphur Oxides in the Mediterranean (Med SOx ECA) would cap Sulphur Oxides (Sox) content in fuel oil burnt by ships at one fifth of the legal limit currently in place. [SmallPrints / Shutterstock]

An emission control area for sulphur oxides in the Mediterranean is not a panacea, but it would open new possibilities for the region’s future while contributing to its health, writes Gaetano Leone.

Gaetano Leone is coordinator of the Mediterranean Action Plan, a multilateral environmental agreement in the context of the Regional Seas Programme of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Under COVID-19 lockdowns, many took to the internet to enthuse about clean air and blue skies. The confined masses shared pictures of wild animals roaming in deserted cities, including a photo purporting to show dolphins in the canals of Venice. Some of those photos may have been inaccurate or outright fake, but the enthusiasm signalled a longing for a healthy environment.

In the search for the pandemic’s silver lining, there may be a temptation to accept that healing the environment comes with plunging millions into joblessness as economies grind to a halt. We must reject this notion because the health of nature and the wellbeing of humans go hand in hand.

Over the last few months, UNEP has repeatedly called upon governments to build back greener. UNEP’s Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP)—which works to underpin the implementation of the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention) by 21 Mediterranean countries and the European Union—has called for a green renaissance in Mare Nostrum.

As the region continues to grapple with a set of intertwined crises, which now includes the coronavirus pandemic, the journey to a green recovery may begin with relatively small steps.

Meeting in Naples, Italy, on 2-5 December 2019, the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention adopted a “Roadmap for a Proposal for the Possible Designation of the Mediterranean Sea, as a whole, as an Emission Control Area for Sulphur Oxides Pursuant to MARPOL Annex VI, within the Framework of the Barcelona Convention”. Although it was tabled before the pandemic, the proposal epitomises the kind of steps needed to build back greener in the region. Mediterranean leaders have an opportunity to demonstrate that they mean green business.

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The proposed Emission Control Area for Sulphur Oxides in the Mediterranean (Med SOx ECA) would cap Sulphur Oxides (Sox) content in fuel oil burnt by ships at one fifth of the legal limit currently in place.

According to a study commissioned by the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC), the UNEP/MAP Regional Activity Centre jointly administered with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Med SOx ECA would translate to a 78.7% drop in Sox emissions. In addition, emissions of particulate matter (PM 2.5) would also be slashed by 23.7%.

In the Mediterranean, which hosts the world’s busiest shipping lanes, effects of this magnitude would matter greatly, especially in the populous coastal zones.

Exposure to certain concentrations of air pollutants is linked to risks of contracting lung cancer, cardiovascular illnesses and asthma. Cleaner air means better health, including a reduced vulnerability to COVID-19—known to take acute forms when the virus encounters underlying conditions—and other ailments of its ilk. Med SOx ECA would bring significant benefits for the environment, too. When released in the atmosphere, Sulphur Oxides can cause acid rain and exacerbate ocean acidification. Curbing SOx emissions would also yield improvements in visibility both inland and at sea across large swathes of North Africa and in the Straits of Gibraltar.

The arguments in favor of Med SOx ECA are compelling. Acting on them would entail and demonstrate strong leadership. At this time further commitment is needed to cement agreement and move forward with the proposal. Regional solidarity in the spirit of the Barcelona Convention, including through technology transfer and capacity building, would go a long way in assuaging concerns about possible difficulties in dealing with the regulatory, technical and economic implications of the proposal.

If it sees the light of day, the positive ripple effect of Med SOX ECA would go beyond the shipping sector to sweep through the Blue Economy and its multiple interfaces with land-based revenue-generating pursuits. It would send a signal to market forces telling them that it is time to shift the needle. An Emission Control Area for Sulphur Oxides in the Mediterranean is not a panacea, but it would open new possibilities for the region’s future while contributing to its health.

As we mark the first observance of the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies on 7 September, let us hope that the Med Sox ECA will be the breeze that fills the sails and pushes the sustainability ship forward.

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