IMO agrees sulphur cap but stalls on climate change
Environmental NGOs have welcomed last Thursday’s decision by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to require substantial reductions in the sulphur content of marine fuel from 2020. But the groups condemned the continued failure of the organisation to agree on measures to combat greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping.
The decision taken at a meeting in London of the IMO working group reviewing MARPOL Annex VI  toughens the internationally binding standards for sulphur in shipping fuel. This should mean cleaner air over European and North American seas and coastal areas.
“This is a great step forward”, said Eelco Leemans of the North Sea Foundation, “after a decade and a half dragging its feet, the IMO has finally taken action to require cleaner shipping fuels.”
States working within MARPOL agreed to require that all ships use marine fuels with a maximum sulphur content of 0.5% by 2020, as well as permitting countries to establish, from 2015, more stringent local Emission Control Areas (ECAs) where sulphur limits would be 0.1%.
David Marshall of the Clean Air Task Force said: “Under this new agreement, meaningful global sulphur reductions are still a long way off, so countries that value the health of their citizens must take advantage of the earlier dates and tougher limits applicable in ECAs. In particular, North America, Europe and other areas with high shipping traffic and population should speed-up their ECA adoption efforts.”
Emissions of sulphur oxides, which are major air pollutants and also cause health-damaging particles, are directly proportional to the sulphur content of fuel. A study presented to the IMO working group by the NGOs showed that under a ‘no action’ scenario, shipping air pollution would be responsible for more than 80,000 premature deaths per year in 2012.
The European Commission has estimated that ship emissions will equal those from all land based sources by 2020 and would alone be higher than targets defined in the EU Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution.
Bill Hemmings from Transport & Environment (T&E) said, “despite this welcome move, global shipping fuels will still be 500 times more polluting than road fuels. That’s not good enough for Europe, with its bad air quality and dense population. We expect Europe to make the best use of the new ECA provisions, and apply the strictest fuel limits in all its sea areas.”
In sharp contrast to the progress on sulphur, the IMO stalled on efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions from ships. The session had been expected to build on work at a meeting last June in Oslo convened especially to address the issue. But the London meeting quickly became bogged down in political questions with developing countries in particular saying they will not accept any action at IMO on climate change that does not respect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. IMO activities are built around the principle of equal treatment for all ships.
Hemmings commented: “The IMO has clearly failed once again to seriously address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions from ships. Having been tasked by Kyoto to adopt a sectoral approach nearly 10 years ago, the last decade has been wasted with inaction. IMO’s belated efforts are too little, too late. It’s now up to the EU to take the lead on tackling emissions from the sector.”
Last week, the European Parliament’s environment committee called on the EU to include shipping in the EU’s emissions trading scheme by 2013.
The IMO also failed to agree on any meaningful reduction of nitrogen oxide emissions from the existing global fleet of over 90,000 ships. These shipping emissions contribute to acid deposition, deadly fine particles, and ozone smog.
As a consequence of IMO inaction, the total amount of these emissions is expected to continue to increase for at least the next several decades. Thus, coastal states must take action on their own to reduce this type of shipping pollution on a national and regional basis.
Notes for editors:
Issued on behalf of Friends of the Earth-international, Friends of the Earth-U.S., Clean Air Task Force, North Sea Foundation, Bellona Foundation, European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E), and the Air Pollution & Climate Secretariat (AirClim). These organisations have for many years actively provided input in the negotiations on air pollution from shipping at the IMO.
 Marpol Annex VI is the worldwide regulation on pollution from ships. Under its current provisions, ships are not allowed to use fuel with a sulphur content higher than 4.5% (or 45,000 ppm – parts per million). The regulation permits the establishment of Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs) where ships are not allowed to use fuel with a sulphur content above 1.5% (15,000 ppm). The North Sea and the Baltic Sea are the only marine areas classified as SECAs.
– In the EU road fuels are not allowed to have sulphur content above 10 ppm.
– According to IMO monitoring, the average level of sulphur in marine fuels was 2.4% (24,000 ppm) in 2007.
– The Proposal from this week’s working group is to: lower maximum sulphur content of fuels as follows:
– In SECAs: 1.0% (or 10,000 ppm) in 2010; and 0.1% (or 1,000 ppm) in 2015.
– Globally: 3.5% (or 35,000 ppm) in 2012; and 0.5M (or 5,000 ppm) in 2020.
 According to a peer-reviewed scientific study submitted to the IMO, air pollution emitted by international shipping will be responsible for 83,700 premature deaths worldwide in 2012 if no measures are taken. If IMO would have regulated fuels to have maximum sulphur content of 0.5% already in 2012, such action would have reduced premature deaths down to 33,700.