Europe Agrees Strict Air Pollution Limits for Shipping Industry

1 November 2012

European environment ministers recently agreed strict new pollution limits on the sulphur content of shipping fuels, following similar moves in the US and Canada.  The strictest limits will apply to the Baltic and North seas, as well as the English Channel - so called sulphur dioxide "Emission Control Areas" - which experience particularly high volumes of shipping.

The new sulphur limit for marine fuels will be lowered to 0.5 percent for all ships, down from the present 3.5 percent for cargo ships and 1.5 percent for passenger ships. This will be phased in starting from January 2015, and will apply to all ships in EU waters by 2020. The even lower limit of 0.1 percent will apply in the Emission Control Areas. The limits had initially been agreed by the Council of the EU and European Parliament in May this year.

Ships can either switch from "bunker fuels" - traditional shipping fuel that is highly polluting - to low sulphur fuels, or they could be allowed to use bunker fuel on ships equipped with modern filtering technologies, such as wet scrubbers. Non-complying ships will face fines set high enough to cancel out any cost savings from non-compliance.

At least one study estimates that the fuel switch could increase costs by some 60 to 90 percent. Additionally, the cost could be passed on to consumers of final or intermediate goods. With more than 90 percent of global trade being transported by sea, the impact on trade could be significant. In the lead-up to the new limits, the Finnish forest products and pulp and paper industries had raised particular concern due to their heavy reliance on transport on the Baltic sea to reach export markets. Polish industries had raised similar concerns.

Environmental groups welcomed the new rules. "The EU has now sent a clear signal that it wants cleaner fuels earlier rather than later while still leaving a very generous eight years for the industry to adapt," commented European Environmental Bureau Policy Officer on Air Pollution Louise Duprez. She added that "Shipping air pollution causes 50,000 premature deaths in Europe every year so this reduction will bring clear benefits to people's health, quality of life and environment, as well as leading to important public health savings."

Antoine Kedzierski of the environmental group Transport and Environment, added, however, that ‘There are a lot of emissions problems in shipping that still have to be tackled quickly, notably greenhouse gases and nitrogen oxides (NOx). When it comes to air pollution, the EU should follow the [even more ambitions policies in the] USA and Canada by making the entire EU coastline a low-SO2 and low-NOx zone, and by ensuring that emissions targets are properly met.'

Next year, the EU is set to review its overall air quality legislation in order to set its limits closer to those recommended by the World Health Organisation.

‘EU Council adopts marine fuel sulfur cuts,' UPI, 31 October 2012; ‘EU ministers back deep cuts in shipping fuel emissions,' EURAKTIV, 30 October 2012.

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