A bid to limit dangerous Nitrogen Oxide (Nox) emissions from new ships is in danger of being delayed until 2021, because of pressure from Russia that may be felt in a meeting of EU diplomats today (7 March).
Pollution from international shipping is estimated to be responsible for more than 50,000 premature deaths in Europe alone and, by 2020, maritime Nox emissions are expected to equal or overtake those from land-based sources.
Because they take place close to shore, such emissions can have a disproportionately damaging effect on human health.
But last year, Russia called for a five-year delay to a deal cut at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2008 which would have strictly limited the shipping pollution from 2016. Russia has given no indication that it would support any future curb on NOx emissions in 2021.
Despite this, a proposal by non-EU member Norway to postpone implementation of the new IMO standard outside of North America, in line with Moscow’s wishes, has gathered support from several EU member states, and from sections of industry.
In response, the European Commission has attempted to assert competence over the issue, at a time when Russian pressure on Europe is under the spotlight, as rarely before.
"It is inconceivable that Europe could even consider legitimising Moscow's attempt to torpedo international rules unanimously agreed 6 years ago,” Bill Hemmings, the shipping manager at Transport and Environment, a green campaign group told EURACTIV. “Europe needs to stand firm and resist Russian manoeuvres to block measures to reduce harmful emissions from ships."
The European Commission’s memo to diplomats says that environmental protection “is in very large measure regulated by Union legislation” such as the Clean Air Quality package, and Water Framework Directive. EU states in the IMO should thus take a common position to oppose what the Commission sees as a Russian-backed boondoggle.
Baltic fear and loathing
But several European countries are loathe to support this position. Baltic states in close proximity to Russia such as Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark are thought to favour stalling any IMO-backed NOx Emission Control Area (Neca) in the Baltic Sea.
Gas supplies and the presence of ethnic Russian minorities in some of these countries can be a potent bargaining chip.
EU member states collectively own the world’s largest merchant fleet and the CO2, NOx, Sulphur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM) emitted by ships in European waters contribute up to 10-20% of overall shipping emissions, and 30% of CO2 emissions.
Globally, the world’s shipping industry emits around one billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year and accounts for around 3% of total emissions. Without action to curb emissions, this figure is expected to double by 2050.
But countries with shipping interests – such as Cyprus, Greece, Latvia, Malta and Poland have supported the Norwegian compromise at the IMO.
Others states fear gifting Brussels the power to sue any EU member which breaks ranks. But without that, it would be “every man for himself,” one observer commented.
Some countries have raised concerns about the possible precedent for subsidiarity that could be set in other areas, if the Commission were to assert competency in this area. “We reject the idea that the Commission can issue these proposals so we’re not voting on this issue and we’ll never vote on this kind of decision,” one diplomat told EURACTIV.
Greek presidency sources also say that they will reject any attempt to debate the Commission memo, although they are aware that the Ukraine crisis could still influence proceedings. Last year, Russian pressure successfully scuppered plans for a Marine Protection Area in the Antarctic Sea.
An inability to take a decision will see the issue kicked back to an IMO coordination meeting in a few weeks’ time.