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After years of delays, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) agreed in 2016 to the sulphur content in shipping fuels being no more than 0.5% from 1 January 2020, a reduction from the current permitted level of 3.5% (except in emissions control areas where stricter limits apply). It will therefore be an offence after that date for any fuel to be burned to propel a ship anywhere in the world (unless certified exhaust gas cleaning systems are used), bringing health benefits and helping protect the marine environment.
However, a growing movement of shipping companies, trade associations and now environmental NGOs are concerned that enforcing the 0.5% sulphur cap will be very challenging. As complying with the low-sulphur fuels requirement will cost ship operators money, the fear is that some ships will honour the new rules when they are close to ports, but then switch to cheaper high-sulphur fuel on the open seas.
Such violations of the ban will be facilitated by the fact that carriage of non-compliant fuels are not prohibited under the current rules. This places the burden of proof for non-compliance on the authorities if ships are found to be carrying non-compliant fuel oils in bunker tanks without having a certified equivalent compliance method.
There are therefore proposals being put to this week’s meeting of an IMO sub-committee on pollution prevention to make even the carriage of non-compliant fuels illegal from 2020. Such a ban would mean that any ship operator tempted to carry high-sulphur fuel with the intention to burn it on the open seas would risk being caught at the port at the start or end of their journey when enforcement is easier, and therefore would not carry the fuel at all.
In a joint statement issued in the run-up to the IMO meeting, 10 environmental and shipping organisations – including the Clean Shipping Coalition of which T&E is a member – said that a ban on carrying non-compliant fuels ‘will help ensure robust, simplified and consistent enforcement of the global sulphur cap’.
The proposals to ban the carriage of non-compliant shipping fuels focus on amending Annex VI of the MARPOL Convention. A number of international associations representing the global shipping industry, as well as the Cook Islands and Norway, have already submitted proposals to IMO to ban the carriage of non-compliant fuels.
The IMO rule that comes into effect in 2020 allow exemptions from low-sulphur fuels, but only for ships using an approved alternative and equivalent compliance method.