Shipping reaches landmark pollution agreement

28th October 2016

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  • Fossil fuels ,
  • Management/saving ,
  • Business & Industry


Christopher Plester

A global ban on ships using high sulphur fuel will come into force in 2020, after a majority vote by the International Maritime Organization.

The decision, at a meeting of its Marine Environment Protection Committee in London, came despite heavy opposition from Russia, among others, who wanted the ban delayed by five years.

The move – which will see sulphur limited to 0.5% of fuel, down from a typical 3.5% now – will significantly lower pollution around ports. A recent study by Finnish researchers said that delaying the ban would cause over 200,000 premature deaths worldwide.

Firms will be allowed to use scrubbers to remove sulphur instead of alternative fuels, but that will only likely be cost effective for larger vessels.

The decision should also lead to shipping firms investing heavily in efficiency measures as fuel prices are expected to jump about 30%. That could even open the door for fuels like LNG, for new ships at least.

The ban was originally agreed in 2008, but was dependent on fuel availability studies.

Tristan Smith of UCL’s Energy Institute presented an IMO-commissioned study on this issue at the meeting. ‘We find global shortages [of low-sulphur fuel] highly improbable,’ he said, saying problems would only occur if there was a significant geopolitical crisis. There could be some regional shortages, but supplies could always be shipped in from elsewhere, he added.

There was disagreement over that study’s conclusions, while some also raised cost and safety fears about the 2020 date. However, such arguments received short shrift from many delegates. Canada, for instance, said: ‘The measure was agreed in 2008. Twelve years is not a short lead time.’*

Bill Hemmings, shipping director at NGO Transport & Environment, 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 should police ships on the high seas, and how.’

Some reactions were less positive. Shipping giant MSC said the ban would cost it $2bn a year. ‘We are…mindful of the challenges involved in achieving full compliance, particularly when the industry is facing some exceptionally difficult times,’ it said.

The IMO is due to agree a work plan to ensure the shipping industry contributes its ‘fair share’ to meeting global climate change targets today. However, this is expected to only say the industry will establish a working group to set an interim target in 2018, which will be reviewed and made concrete in 2023.

This has been welcomed by delegations who point out that a year ago the IMO would not even consider a target. The group has also agreed to meet for two weeks a year solely to discuss how to reduce emissions, a significant breakthrough.

The December issue of the the environmentalist will feature an article on how shiping is trying to reduce its emissions.

*Canada gave the environmentalist permission to be quoted. IMO reporting guidelines mean countries’ views and positions cannot be quoted, even anonymously, without permission.


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