The arrival of a new EU sulphur law

Photo: Martine Pasquini / Fotolia

The sulphur content of ship fuels will be cut to 0.1% from 2015 in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, and to 0.5% from 2020 in other EU waters. As a result, emissions of sulphur dioxide from shipping in Europe will come down by more than 80 per cent.

After several weeks of trialogue negotiations EU member states, the European Parliament and the European Commission on 23 May arrived at a first reading compromise agreement on new air pollution limits for ships.
The main intention of the proposed revision of the EU’s sulphur in fuels directive was to implement into EU law the global sulphur standards agreed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) back in 2008, thereby ensuring their proper enforcement at EU level.

While the parliament’s environment committee wanted to go further and adopt stricter and more wide-reaching standards than those originally proposed by the Commission (see AN 1/11 p. 6-7), several member states opposed the idea to implement any stricter sulphur limits than those adopted by the IMO in 2008.

The final agreement confirms the IMO sulphur limit of 0.1% for 2015 which applies to the designated Sulphur Emissions Control Areas (SECAs), i.e. the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel. It also confirms that the IMO global sulphur limit of 0.5% will apply in all other EU waters as from 2020. By establishing this date, the EU has now sent a clear signal that it wants cleaner fuels earlier rather than later.

Currently the global average sulphur content of ship fuel is around 2.7%, so the new 0.5% limit is expected to cut ship sulphur emissions by more than 80 per cent.

The Danish Presidency, who led the negotiations, concluded in its press release that ships are among the largest emitters of air pollution in Europe, that ship emissions lead to 50,000 premature deaths in Europe each year and cause acid rain which destroys ecosystems.

Danish Minister of Environment Ida Auken said: “This is a victory for environment and health in Europe. We have succeeded in getting an agreement, which secures substantially cleaner air for all Europeans. It’s a crucial step, because all EU member states will now be required to enforce the strict regulation, which addresses pollution that so far has been largely unregulated.”

The key elements of the agreement are:

  • In line with Annex VI of the IMO’s MARPOL Convention, the sulphur limit for marine fuels used in SECAs (the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel) is set at 1.0% until 31 December 2014, to be lowered to 0.1% as from 1 January 2015.
  • Outside SECAs the current global IMO limit is 3.5%. According to the IMO, this limit shall come down to 0.5% by 2020 (or possibly 2025 subject to a review in 2018). The new EU law will however make this 0.5% limit mandatory in non-SECA EU waters by 2020.
  • The current EU regime for passenger ships in non-SECA waters of 1.5% sulphur will continue to apply until 31 December 2019, after which the 0.5% limit will apply.
  • Marine fuels with a sulphur content of more than 3.5% will only be allowed in EU waters in vessels that are equipped with exhaust gas cleaning systems (scrubbers) operating in closed mode.
  • Member states shall endeavour to ensure the availability of the required marine fuels.
  • Member states may provide support to operators, such as aid for investment costs, in accordance with the applicable state aid rules. Moreover, the Commission should make full use of financial instruments that are already in place and promote the development and testing of alternative technologies to reduce emissions from ships.
  • Member states shall take all necessary measures to check by sampling that the sulphur content of fuels complies with the obligations.
  • As part of the penalties to be set by member states in implementing the directive, possible fines should at least be equivalent to the profits resulting from the infringements.
  • The Commission shall make a report by December 2013 and consider the potential for further reducing air pollution by ships. In the review of the Commission’s air quality policy scheduled for 2013, the Commission will consider the possibilities of further reducing air pollution from shipping, including the impacts of applying the 0.1% sulphur limit to ships in the territorial seas of member states.

Commenting on the legislative agreement, the European Parliament’s rapporteur Satu Hassi (Green Party), said: “These new rules are a boost for public health and the environment. Thankfully, the EU stuck to its guns in the face of heavy lobbying from polluting shipping companies, which wanted Europe to renege on its international commitments and adopt less ambitious legislation.”
Hassi continued: “The European Commission has also been tasked with reviewing its air quality legislation, with a view to extending the current stricter requirements on ships in port to all ships in territorial waters. This would be a cost-effective way of reducing pollution from shipping and extending the health benefits in EU coastal areas outside SECAs.”

While welcoming the agreement, environmental groups warned that lax enforcement may undermine the effectiveness of the new rules. Antoine Kedzierski of Transport & Environment said: “We are concerned that current enforcement of fuel quality standards for ships is very poor with as little as one check per day even in major ports. We urge the Commission and member states to ensure that these rules are strictly enforced in EU waters.”

The first reading agreement will now have to be adopted at a plenary session of the European Parliament, after which the directive will be officially adopted by the Council. Member states will have 18 months after the entry into force of the directive to adopt the necessary national provisions.

Christer Ågren

Council press release:
Danish Presidency press release:
EEB and T&E joint press release:
Satu Hassi press release:


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