Sulphur Directive pushes shipping into stormy waters

Long distance cargo ships may have to carry multiple fuel supplies to comply with regulations. [NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr]

The European Union’s Sulphur Directive limits sulphur emissions from commercial shipping to 0.1%, in a zone that extends from the English Channel to the Baltic Sea. Enforcing the regulation is proving problematic for member states. EURACTIV France reports

Air quality in the English Channel, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea has received a boost. On 1 January, this Sulphur Emissions Control Area (SECA), along with two zones in North America, tightened its restrictions on the sulphur content of fuel used by commercial ships from 1% to 0.1%, in line with the 2013 Sulphur Directive. Sulphur content in ship fuel is hardly regulated in other areas, including the Mediterranean, where it can be as high as 4%. A global limit will be set at 0.5% from 2020; a challenge for the industry, but an essential measure for the environment. Sulphur emissions cause acid rain, which is harmful to plant life, and can also lead to major respiratory problems. The sulphur emitted by the maritime industry is responsible for around 50,000 deaths per year in Europe.

Filtering exhaust gasses or switching fuels

There are very few options available for limiting sulphur emissions. Ships must either filter their exhaust gasses, switch to a sulphur-free fuel or convert their fuel supply to gas. But the industry is struggling to come up with a standard. The installation of exhaust gas filters is technically very difficult, and only 100 to 150 ships in the world are currently fitted with these exhaust “scrubber” systems, from a total fleet of 50,000 commercial ships. The Swedish ferry company Stena Line, which transports passengers between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, plans to make this modification to its ships by 2016.

The option of using low-sulphur fuels, like marine diesel or methanol, is not currently an economically viable alternative to exhaust filtration. These highly refined fuels cost 30-40% more than those traditionally used by commercial ships; a cost that hits short distance shipping routes particularly hard. Long-distance freight ships from Asia or Africa are expected to switch to a low-sulphur fuel when they enter the Channel. This means they should carry multiple fuel reserves, which is not always the case.

>> Read: Marine fuel rules could cost billions, analysts say

The collapse of the price of oil from $100 to $50 in the last six months has helped soften the blow for shipping companies. Bill Hemmings, from the NGO Transport and Environment said “Reduced-sulphur fuel is now the same price as regular fuel was six months ago, so the cost overrun is smaller”.

The industry is still fearful that this directive will cut its market share, as cheaper fuel also benefits the road transport sector, whose environmental impact per kilometer is considerably worse.

>> Read: EU efforts to promote sea transport bring little progress

A very theoretical regulation

The enforcement of this legislation poses a further problem. The EU’s separate national authorities are responsible for ensuring that ships comply with the new environmental regulations, but only around one in every 1,000 ships are checked, and fines are not an effective deterrent. The fine for non-compliance in Poland and the Baltic countries is only €800. “A 20,000 ton cargo ship saves around €10,000 a day by using non-regulation fuel. It has to spend eight days in the SECA zone in order to deliver a cargo to Poland,” said Sjoerd Hupkes Wijnstra, head of environmental affairs at Spliethoff ocean transport group. For a ship’s captain, the choice between an additional cost of €80,000 and a potential fine of €800 is an easy one. From 2016, according to the Sulphur Directive, one in ten ships that pass through European ports will have their fuel checked.

On top of the new regulations on sulphur emissions, the influx of new ships also poses a threat to the sector’s profitability.

2020 sulphur and CO2 targets

The restriction of sulphur emissions is the main environmental constraint to be imposed on the industry. By 2020, sulphur emissions will be subject to a 0.5% limit worldwide. Developing countries, which depend heavily on marine transport to feed their growing economies, are following the matter closely and trying to have the date pushed back to 2025.

Limits for CO2 emissions are still being finalised, and ship owners will be included in the next round of global climate negotiations, according to the provisional text for the Paris Climate Conference. Until now, commitments on emissions reduction for commercial shipping have been made exclusively by the International Maritime Organisation, but the European Council has decided that the EU will take charge of the question from 2018. 

Sulphur and CO2 emissions from sea transport are rising, while emissions from road transport are falling. Civil society does not put pressure on the maritime transport industry to reduce its emissions, as commercial ships, unlike lorries, are usually far from the public eye. In Europe, the sector has slipped through the net of CO2 emissions regulation. Its first CO2 targets will not come into force until 2018. Environmental NGOs believe the inclusion of the maritime transport industry in the carbon quota system will help raise the price of CO2 and lower emissions.

International Maritime Organisation

European Commission

Trident Alliance for the Enforcement of Sulphur Regulations

Transport and Environment (NGO)

Subscribe to our newsletters