According to a new study, ship air pollution causes about 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease alone. Photo: / Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA

IMO moves to ban carriage of high-sulphur marine fuel

Implementing the global lower-sulphur fuel requirement will reduce ship emissions related to premature mortality and morbidity by 34 and 54 per cent, respectively.

The decision to introduce a global 0.5 per cent cap on the content of sulphur in marine fuel by 2020 was originally agreed by the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) back in 2008. After having carried out a thorough assessment of whether sufficient compliant fuel oil would be available by 2020, the IMO decided in October 2016 by consensus to confirm 1 January 2020 as the implementation date for the 0.5 per cent global sulphur cap (see AN 4/16).

It has long been a major concern by many groups, including authorities, shipowners and environmentalists, that there is a risk that potential cheaters could benefit if the new sulphur requirement is not effectively enforced everywhere.

Shortly before a crucial meeting of the IMO’s Pollution Prevention and Response sub-committee (PPR) in London in February, environmental and shipping industry organizations rather surprisingly jointly called for an explicit prohibition on the carriage of non-compliant marine fuels in 2020. According to their joint statement, such a ban will help ensure robust, simplified and consistent enforcement of the global sulphur cap.

On 9 February the PPR agreed to recommend a ban on ships carrying marine fuels that do not comply with the new global sulphur fuel limit. The ban would make it illegal after 2020 for ships to have fuel containing more than 0.5 per cent sulphur on board, unless the vessel has a scrubber installed that cleans the emissions. The PPR concluded that the issue is to be “considered as an urgent matter to be finalized as soon as possible”. In practice this probably means that a proposed text is to be discussed in April, followed by approval and adoption in October 2018.

John Maggs, president of the Clean Shipping Coalition, said: “This is an important development that closes a serious loophole in the original agreement. Banning the carriage of non-compliant fuel will make it considerably more difficult for unscrupulous ship operators to ignore the rule, burn cheaper non-compliant fuel, and escape serious sanction. This decision, which must be confirmed by the IMO in April, will mean a cleaner environment and fewer premature deaths from ship air pollution.”

To ensure that fuel suppliers, carriers and authorities have the right tools and guidelines to comply with the sulphur regulation, the IMO is also looking more widely at the implementation practice. For this purpose, a week-long meeting with special focus on the implementation of the sulphur requirements is scheduled for 9–13 July 2018.

Meanwhile, a new scientific study was published in January, providing new estimates of the public health and climate impacts of implementing the global 0.5 per cent fuel standard.

According to the study, ship air pollution is responsible for approximately 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease alone, and around 14 million childhood asthma cases annually. The 0.5 per cent sulphur cap will reduce the number of deaths linked to ship air pollution by around a third and more than halve the number of ship pollution-related childhood asthma cases. This would mean 137,000 fewer deaths due to air pollution every year, and around eight million fewer cases of childhood asthma.

Despite these reductions, ship air pollution will still account for around 250,000 deaths and around 6.4 million childhood asthma cases annually, so “additional reductions beyond 2020 standards may prove beneficial”, the authors noted. Moreover, they concluded that “many control technologies for harmful particulates and ozone precursor emissions perform better under low-sulphur combustion conditions”, thereby improving the scope for additional emission reductions.

Regarding climate forcing, it was estimated that the net reduced cooling resulting from switching to lower-sulphur fuel amounts to over three per cent of total anthropogenic radiative forcing. This underlines the need for shipping to quickly start moving beyond fossil fuels in the sector altogether, thus reducing emissions of both greenhouse gases and air pollutants.

Christer Ågren


Press releases by Clean Shipping Coalition and Transport & Environment, 22 January and 9 February 2018.

Study “Cleaner fuels for ships provide public health benefits with climate tradeoffs”. By M. Sofiev et al. Published in Nature Communications (January 2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02774-9.


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