Photo: Laskin Nikita /

Editorial: Cutting ship emissions is cost effective

Over the last thirty years, fuel and emission standards for land-based transport have been dramatically strengthened over most of the world. But international shipping – which is primarily regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – has for a long time resisted similar legislation for emissions of both air pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Currently, most ocean-going ships burn extremely dirty fuels that may contain up to 3500 times the sulphur content of road diesel fuel, and even after implementation of the new global 0.5 per cent sulphur limit in 2020, they are still allowed to burn fuels with 500 times more sulphur.

Moreover, the globally applicable nitrogen oxides Tier 2 limit values for ship engines are very weak, and as they only apply to new ships it will take around 30 years until all ships comply.
Outdated and lax emission regulations explain why ship emissions are a major contributor to bad air quality and why air pollution from shipping is responsible for around 50,000 annual cases of premature deaths in Europe.

The obvious way forward is for the EU and its member states to quickly follow the example of the United States and Canada and designate all sea areas around Europe as full Emission Control Areas (ECA), i.e. covering the major air pollutants – sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. So far, however, only the Baltic Sea and the North Sea have ECA status.

Compared to the current global requirements, the ECA standards will cut sulphur in fuel by 97 per cent, particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 75 per cent, and NOx emissions by 75 per cent.
According to recent studies, such action would be highly cost-effective and save many thousands of lives every year. For example, the monetised health benefits of designating the Mediterranean Sea as an ECA would already amount to more than €10 billion per year by 2030 – up to ten times more than the estimated emission abatement costs (for details, see articles on page 1 and page 6).
Focussing on reducing ship emissions in the Mediterranean Sea, a coalition of six environmental groups in Mediterranean countries together with the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), has agreed a set of demands1, including:

  • The designation of the Mediterranean Sea as a combined SECA and NECA by 2020;
  • A coherent ECA for all European waters that covers all major air pollutants (SO2, NOx, PM and BC);
  • Cooperation of EU states with non-EU coastal states to establish a Mediterranean ECA;
  • A ban on toxic heavy fuel oil and consequently a ban on the use of scrubbers;
  • A harmonised and effective control and enforcement scheme.

Applying new and improved emission control techniques must be part of the solution, but quickly phasing out the use of fossil fuels is key to resolving both climate change and air pollution, as it cuts emissions of the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as well as those of health-damaging air pollutants.

It is not acceptable for the shipping industry to keep on transferring the cost of its pollution to society at large. The IMO and EU regulations must be strengthened and fully implemented. To encourage the use of the best techniques, to improve energy efficiency and to speed up the introduction of cleaner fuels and alternative (zero-CO2) propulsion systems, regulations should be complemented by economic instruments, such as emission charges.

Christer Ågren


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