Members' Research Service By / February 5, 2015

Cutting sulphur emissions from ships

Written by Marketa Pape To improve human health and protect the environment, the EU focuses on different aspects of air…

© European Union, EPRS
Written by Marketa Pape

To improve human health and protect the environment, the EU focuses on different aspects of air pollution from maritime transport. Tighter rules on sulphur emissions from ships came into effect on 1 January 2015. Under these rules, all ships operating in northern EU waters must comply with strict new sulphur emissions limits. Estimates of the impact vary, while different issues are at stake.


Cutting sulphur emissions from ships
© European Union, EPRS

Maritime transport is a strategic sector for the EU, regulated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised United Nations agency. In 1973, the IMO adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The revision in 2008 of Annex VI to the MARPOL Convention introduced stricter limits for air pollution from ships in and outside emission control areas. In this context, in their individual capacities as contracting parties to the IMO, EU Member States agreed to new standards on the sulphur content of marine fuels. To ensure coherence with international law and better enforcement, the revised standards were transposed into EU law by Directive 2012/33/EU, amending Directive 1999/32/EC as regards the sulphur content of marine fuels. The new rules apply to all vessels sailing in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel, designated by IMO as the EU ‘Sulphur Emissions Control Areas’ (SECAs), but for the moment do not cover other EU waters. In the SECAs, the maximum level of sulphur allowed in shipping fuel has been reduced from 1% to 0.1%, while outside SECAs the limit is currently 3.5% and should drop to 0.5% as of 1 January 2020. Environmental and public health benefits are expected to outweigh the costs for Europe as a whole. Compliance checks and penalties are the responsibility of the Member States concerned.

Implementation of the new rules

In practice, ship operators can either opt for more expensive, cleaner fuel or use an approved abatement technology. The cleaner fuel option means switching from high-sulphur fuel (HSF) to low-sulphur fuel (LSF) or converting the ship to use liquefied natural gas (LNG). As running only on LSF is costly, ships operating both in and out of SECAs are likely to use HSF outside SECAs and LSF in SECAs. The changeover takes several hours and can result in a mixture of both types of fuel, with sulphur content still above the limit. Converting to LNG has additional environmental benefits and can be less costly in the long term. But at present, LNG supply facilities are still few, available volumes low and better supply is planned only for 2025. A second option is to run on HSF and install an exhaust gas cleaning system (scrubber) to achieve equivalent sulphur emissions reductions. Two major issues with scrubbers are their cost, and the lack of clear rules for the discharge of cleaning residues (wash water).

Institutional and stakeholder positions

In its efforts to reduce compliance costs, the European Commission has put forward a set of measures (Sustainable Waterborne Transport Toolbox) and financial support for projects focused on scrubbing technology and alternative fuels (LNG and Methanol). In 2013, it set up the European Sustainable Shipping Forum (ESSF), a platform for structural dialogue between Member States and stakeholders. The European Parliament has expressed its support for the promotion of new technologies and the use of on-shore electricity for ships in port. The shipping industry is set to comply with the new limits, but warns against modal backshift from sea to road, which could result in more road pollution and congestion and run counter to the logic of the Commission’s 2011 White Paper on transport. Industry representatives in the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) have called for clear compliance and enforcement rules and fair competition. A network of shipping companies and operators which have invested in compliance measures have founded Trident Alliance, which campaigns for enforcement to be robust and transparent.

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