November 21, 2002

EC to set marine fuel sulphur limit

The European Commission has just adopted a new strategy to reduce the impact of ship's atmospheric emissions on the environment and human health. An important part of the strategy is a proposal to reduce the sulphur contents of marine fuels used in the European Union.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said: "The Commission's new strategy to reduce ship emissions gives the maritime industry a timely opportunity to improve its green credentials. The new, stricter limits for sulphur in marine fuels that we are proposing to establish will reduce sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU by over 500,000 tonnes every year. These reductions will be targeted to deliver the greatest possible benefits - in ports and coastal areas close to where people live, and in acid-sensitive ecosystems in northern Europe. Working together with Member States and industry, we want to create a clean new future for marine transport in the EU."

The Commission's first priority is to reduce ship emissions of sulphur dioxide and particulate matter from ships, which are directly related to the sulphur content of marine fuels. Marine fuel has an average sulphur content of 2.7%, or 27,000 parts per million, compared with automotive gasoline, which has only around 50 parts per million. The Commission is therefore presenting a proposal for a directive to reduce the sulphur content of marine fuels used in the EU. The proposal's main provisions are:

  • a 1.5% sulphur limit for marine fuels used by all seagoing vessels in the North Sea, English Channel and Baltic Sea, in line with the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) MARPOL Annex VI sulphur limits, in order to reduce the effect of ship emissions on acidification in Northern Europe and on air quality
  • the same 1.5% sulphur limit for marine fuels used by passenger vessels on regular services to or from any port within the EU, in order to improve air quality around ports and coasts, and create sufficient demand to ensure an EU-wide supply of low sulphur fuel
  • a 0.2% sulphur limit on fuel used by ships while they are at berth in ports inside the EU, to reduce local emissions of sulphur dioxide and particulate matter, and improve local air quality.

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The Commission says that these measures will have significant human health benefits reducing the incidence of asthma, bronchitis and heart failure, particularly in populated port areas. It is estimated that the ship emissions reductions achieved as a result of this proposal would lead to at least 2000 fewer life years lost in the EU through long-term exposure to emissions, 750 fewer deaths from short-term exposure, and 300 fewer hospital admissions for respiratory illness. The measures will also help reduce exceedances of critical loads for acidification, which remain a serious problem in lake and forest ecosystems in northern Europe.

As well as the sulphur proposal, the strategy sets out a number of other important actions including a push for tougher global emissions standards at the International Maritime Organization, the development of new market-based measures to reduce ship emissions beyond regulatory standards, and the creation of a new Clean Marine Award scheme to promote low-emission shipping in the European Union.


The Commission says that ship emissions contribute to acid rain, ground-level ozone (smog), air pollution, and marine eutrophication in the European Union. They also contribute to the global problems of climate change and ozone depletion.

A recent study for the Commission looked at all shipping journeys starting or finishing in Europe, and estimated the emissions of various pollutants. The results were startling for example, by 2010, emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in EU sea areas are likely to equate to 75% of total land-based emissions, including those from all cars, trucks and industrial plants. The picture for nitrogen oxides (NOx) is not much better, with ship emissions likely to equal two thirds of land emissions by 2010. The study also found that 50% of ship movements in EU seas are made by vessels flagged in countries outside the European Union.

The reason that emissions from ships are now so conspicuous is because, to date, the maritime sector has been unregulated - unlike other industrial and transport sectors that are already covered by EU regulations. This also means that ships can now reduce their emissions more cheaply than other sectors where action has already been taken - in other words, it is cheaper to reduce one tonne of emissions from shipping than it is to reduce the same tonne of emissions from another source.

Today's strategy proposes to reduce ships' SO2 emissions through a proposal to require lower sulphur marine fuels to be used in EU seas and ports, as outlined above. To reduce ships' NOx emissions, the strategy proposes that the Commission should work with Member States to press for tougher engine standards through the International Maritime Organization. This approach will reduce NOx emissions from all the ships entering EU seas not just those flagged in the European Union. In parallel the Commission aims to develop market-based instruments to encourage shipowners to use NOx reduction technologies in EU seas. The strategy also sets out actions to reduce ships' emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances.

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