• Breakthrough on shipping fuels as IMO working group recommends sulphur cap

    Significant progress has been made in the fight to reduce air pollution caused by ships, as the International Maritime Organisation looks set to impose caps on sulphur in shipping fuels later this year.

    [mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]The development – described by one NGO as ‘a real ocean-sized change for the IMO’ – is the recommendation by the IMO’s working group on reviewing Marpol Annex VI, the legal agreement limiting pollution from ships, that sulphur be cut to 0.5% globally by 2020, with stricter limits in certain areas well before then.

    At this stage it is only a recommendation from a working group – it still has to be ratified by the full IMO in October. But given that the group included a wide range of interested parties, including NGOs, and has been working on this new framework for three years, it would be a major setback if the IMO rejected it.

    Current regulations under Marpol Annex VI are that ships cannot use fuels with a sulphur content above 4.5%, but this is effectively meaningless as the global average in 2007 was 2.4%. The working group proposes changing the limit to 3.5% by 2012 and 0.5% by 2020.

    For special Sulphur Emission Control Areas (Secas), stricter rules would apply. The current limit of 1.5% would fall to 1.0% in 2010 and 0.1% by 2015. So far, only two seas in the world have been designated Secas: the Baltic and North Seas.

    T&E policy officer João Vieira said: ‘This is good progress, and the full IMO will be taking a serious risk if it tries to reject or water down the group’s re- commendations. Once the new framework is in force, we should concentrate our efforts on getting the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea designated Secas, so that Europe has the highest possible standards.’

    Air pollution from shipping, which one report suggests will cause 80 000 premature deaths per year by 2012 if no action is taken, is caused by sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particles. The action on sulphur will help improve the environmental performance of ships, but less progress was made on reducing NOx. NGOs are happy with the proposed new standards for new ships, but unhappy with current proposals for existing ships, some of which may have up to 20 years’ service left.

    Shipping’s progress is still poor relative to road transport. There, sulphur reductions are quoted in parts per million, and road fuels in the EU will soon not be allowed to have more than 10ppm, whereas 0.5% sulphur content in shipping fuels equates to 5000ppm. ‘The new framework still leaves shipping 500 times more polluting than roads,’ Vieira added.

    • IMO’s marine environment protection committee failed to reach any significant decision on CO2 from shipping, but agreed to discuss the issue at a meeting in Oslo in June.