Hundreds of thousands of lives to be saved thanks to IMO’s cleaner ship fuel decision

The poisonous sulphur content of marine fuels is to be capped at 0.5% by the year 2020, a move that is expected to prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, mainly in the developing world. T&E applauded the decision by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which had considered delaying the limit by five years but, after a sustained campaign by environmental groups, stayed with its original deadline.

The limit on sulphur content in marine fuel, which will apply worldwide, was first agreed by acclamation at the IMO in 2008. The current sulphur limit for marine heavy fuel oil is 3,500 times higher than the limit for diesel used in Europe’s cars and trucks, making the shipping industry the world's second biggest emitter of SO2 (a sulphur pollutant) after China. Shipping’s SO2 emissions, which can cause lung cancer and heart disease, will be reduced by 85% compared with today’s levels.

T&E shipping director Bill Hemmings said: ‘This is a landmark decision and we are very pleased that the world has bitten the bullet and is now tackling poisonous sulphuric fuel in 2020. This decision reduces the contribution of shipping to the world’s air pollution impact from about 5% down to 1.5% and will save millions of lives in the coming decades. Now the focus should shift towards implementing this decision, which is a big issue since it’s not yet clear who will police ships on the high seas, and how.’

The start of the sulphur cap had been made dependent on the results of a fuel availability study of heavy fuel oil with sulphur content below 0.5%. The IMO’s study, completed in August, shows that under all scenarios and sensitivity options considered, there will be sufficient clean fuel available in 2020. However, the shipping and refining industries had produced their own study to contest these findings in a bid to postpone the sulphur cap to 2025.

A study reviewing the health impacts found that on-time implementation of a global low-sulphur fuel cap for shipping would prevent some 200,000 premature deaths due to less toxic fumes, mainly in coastal communities in the developing world that barely benefit from global trade. This includes 134,650 avoided premature deaths in Asia, 32,100 in Africa and 20,800 in Latin America.