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  • Cleaner ship fuels – it’s about time!

    Opinion By Kerstin Meyer - T&E senior campaigner It seemed the wrong way round when the Commission came under heavy lobby-fire earlier this year over the issue of new sulphur limits for marine fuel. Typically when it comes to international areas like shipping, industry lobbyists always call for an international agreement instead of European legislation. Since these international bodies tend to work extremely slowly that usually means nothing really happens for the next 10 or 20 years, but in this case that was not true. In 2008 the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) agreed some fairly substantial air pollution rules. And now the shipping industry is calling on European policy-makers to ignore the agreement and set their own – weaker – standards.

    [mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]One wonders if shipping industry lobbyists were asleep in April 2008 when members of the IMO unanimously supported these rules. The agreement did not fall from the sky. It was preceded by a three-year process with much deliberation and debate. Now 23 of the 27 EU member states have ratified the agreement, meaning they are already bound by it according to international law.

    In the run-up to the IMO agreement, there had been such little action to tackle marine fuels that the EU was talking about acting alone if there was no international agreement. Now, as a result of the IMO decision, the USA for example has already started to apply more stringent air pollution rules around its entire coast. Europeans are quick to question the environmental credibility of the US, but this time the Americans are ahead of Europe. Stepping back from a world-wide agreement like this would not only look ridiculous, it would also undermine the credibility of the EU in all other UN agreements. This is probably the reason why José Manuel Barroso said in a letter to the industries that are complaining: ‘I do not believe it is a realistic option to call into question the agreement that has been reached at international level.’

    Apart from anything else, it is about time ship fuel was cleaned up. Marine fuel is currently 2700 times dirtier than road fuel. Even after the agreed new limits enter into force, it would still contain 100 to 500 times more sulphur than road fuel. This is why ship fuel will continue to remain a lot cheaper than road fuel, so the idea that a lot of traffic would move from sea to land if ship fuel were more expensive as a result of the new rules is probably an empty threat. And if shipping can only compete on the basis of a dirty fuel, you have to wonder how ‘green’ it really is.

    Contrary to popular belief most ship emissions are actually caused quite close to land, and pollution that gets blown inland causes serious health damage. A recent study by the Danish Centre of Energy, Environment and Health (CEEH) found that ship emissions lead to about 50 000 premature deaths in Europe. And because power plants and other polluting industries are already required to clean up their exhaust, reducing emissions from ships is actually one of the cheapest ways to reduce air pollution in Europe. For the tougher standards that are about to be introduced in 2015, the health benefits alone are worth 27 times more than the costs to the shipping industry.

    The Commission’s Europe 2020 Strategy is all about making the European Union smarter, ‘greener’ and more innovative. The shipping industry needs to decide whether it will embrace this philosophy and become really ‘green’ or whether it wants to stay in the backwaters it is currently trudging in.