An environmental turning point
The cat is out of the bag: the IMO’s marine environment protection committee in London has decided that from 2020 onwards, more stringent requirements for the sulphur content of fuels will enter into force. The European Sea Ports Organisation ensured that the introduction of the limits has been linked to the EU’s sulphur directive.
In global maritime traffic, with a few regional exceptions, the use of heavy fuel oil with a sulphur content of up to 3.5% is still allowed – a value 3,500 times the level permitted in European road traffic. That is now set to change.
In designated emissions-monitoring zones, called sulphur emission control areas (Secas), such as the North and Baltic Seas, the North American coast and the US Caribbean, stricter quality requirements for ship fuels have been in force since 2015. The legal limit of 0.1% sulphur by mass that applies in those areas is laid out in the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (Marpol) and – for the North and Baltic Seas – in Annex VI of EU’s sulphur directive 1999 / 32 / EC.
Enough low-sulphur fuel?
In the rest of the world, however, a sulphur content of 3.5% is allowed. This explains the suspense leading up to the meeting of the IMO’s marine environment protection committee in London at the end of October, where a decision was due on whether to reduce the limit (except in the Secas) to 0.5% from 2020 onwards.
Participants held intensive discussions in the run-up to the meeting about whether the timing for the new limit should remain unchanged, in view of the fact that an agreement from 2008 allowed for an extension to 2025 if there was a lack of available fuel meeting the standards.
This was precisely what the Baltic and International Maritime Council (Bimco), the world’s largest international maritime shipping organisation, feared. A review by the Dutch environmental consultancy CE Delft, carried out on behalf of the IMO, came to the conclusion however that, in every scenario it had assessed, refineries would be able to supply sufficient quantities of both low-sulphur ship fuel as well as other fuels.
The European Sea Ports Organisation (Espo) came out in favour of sticking to the 2020 deadline for the introduction of the new limits. Prior to the meeting, it also successfully lobbied for the linking of the introduction of the new limit to the EU’s sulphur directive, in order to ensure a level playing field for companies from the EU and firms from neighbouring countries. The environment committee of the IMO decided to introduce the more stringent limits from the year 2020 onwards.
Espo secretary general Isabelle Ryckbost considers the decision to be a milestone. But she also pointed out that at the global level there is still plenty of work to do. “By sticking to its target year of 2020, the International Maritime Organization has shown that setting an ambitious ecological goal is indeed possible at the global level.”
Ensuring a level playing field
IMO secretary general Kitack Lim also welcomed the decision. He said that it demonstrated the decisiveness of the organisation in ensuring that international shipping remained the most environment-friendly mode of transport. “The more stringent global limits and the associated reduction of sulphur-dioxide emissions result in significant improvements for the environment as well as human health that extend beyond existing emissions monitoring areas,” said Lim. In order to ensure effective implementation, work will continue in the IMO’s pollution prevention and response subcommittee.
The Verband Deutscher Reeder (German Shipowners’ Association VDR) also affirmed the decision. But Ralf Nagel, the VDR’s chief executive officer, pointed out that “the task now is to find a way to ensure uniform global implementation of the new rules by 2020, to preserve fair competition in our global industry.”
Ban on heavy fuel oil still on the table
The environmental organisation Nabu, which like the VDR participated as an observer in the meetings of the IMO’s environment committee, expressed greater criticism. Although Daniel Rieger, a transport expert at Nabu, welcomed the decision to reduce the sulphur content of fuel, he also emphasised that “it’s time for heavy fuel oil, a toxic product, to disappear from our oceans. We urgently need a global ban on heavy fuel oil, which will provide an incentive to rely more on propulsion systems that are more environment-friendly in future.”