Written by Frederik Scholaert.
World Maritime Day is celebrated each year on the last Thursday of September. Every time a new theme is chosen to highlight different aspects of maritime activities. This year, the theme on 28 September 2023 is ‘MARPOL at 50 – Our commitment goes on’, marking the 50th anniversary of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).
The shipping industry is a major user of the world’s oceans, delivering essential goods – over 80 % of global trade – and transporting passengers. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the United Nations agency responsible for the safety, security and environmental performance of international shipping, and the MARPOL Convention, adopted by the IMO on 2 November 1973, is its principal instrument for preventing pollution from ships. Over the years, MARPOL has been updated. The regulation of air pollution and emissions from ships, as well as energy efficiency, has been included in MARPOL since 1997. In addition, in 2018, the IMO adopted an action plan to address marine plastic waste from ships.
As a major hub for global shipping and home to some of the world’s largest ports, the EU has a strong interest in setting high standards to prevent pollution from ships. The Directive on Ship-source Pollution, adopted in 2005, enforces consistent implementation of MARPOL standards across EU Member States and provides for appropriate sanctions against those responsible for illegal discharges at sea. The substances covered include oil, liquefied gases and noxious liquid substances, as well as sewage, packaged hazardous substances, rubbish and air pollution. To help Member States implement the directive, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) developed CleanSeaNet, a technical solution to detect and monitor marine pollution in European waters through satellite monitoring, surveillance, and tracking discharges. The EU is now working on a proposal to revise the directive. With the revision, the EU aims to bring it into line with other EU legislation, in particular the recently adopted Directive on Port Reception Facilities (on the collection of waste from ships in ports). The revision also aims to cover the full range of pollutants under MARPOL.
Moreover, in the context of the European Green Deal, the EU is finalising a new law, the FuelEU maritime initiative, to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from maritime transport. The regulation will set progressively increasing reduction targets for larger ships, up to an 80 % reduction by 2050 compared to 2020 levels. The new law will also require EU ports to provide sufficient electricity capacity, so ships will be obliged to connect to a clean electricity supply when they dock. With the act, the EU is leading by example in decarbonising the maritime sector.
Over the past half century, the IMO’s MARPOL Convention has laid a solid foundation for tackling ship-source pollution worldwide. But as with many international conventions, its success largely depends on implementation at national and regional levels. Although the EU has observer status at the IMO (as full membership is reserved for EU Member States with maritime interests), the EU continues to play a central role in improving enforcement of its conventions, including MARPOL. At the same time, the EU is at the forefront of decarbonising maritime transport.