EU rules on shipping pollution come into force

An EU Directive to reduce sulphur and particulate matter emissions from marine shipping entered into force this week (17 December), writes Michael Holder

The maximum sulphur content of marine fuels is set to be limited to 0.1% in seas surrounding the UK under an EU Directive that came into force this week (17 December).

This will mean that from 2015, ships and maritime firms from EU member states will have to use low-sulphur fuels or gas cleaning systems in order to comply with the limits.

An EU Directive entering into force this week will put stricter limits on the sulphur content of marine and shipping fuels

An EU Directive entering into force this week will put stricter limits on the sulphur content of marine and shipping fuels

According to the European Commission, maritime shipping emits harmful air pollutants over long distances, which can contribute to poor air quality in many European cities.

Currently, the maximum sulphur content of marine fuels is limited to 3.5%, but the latest Directive of the European Parliament and Council will limit this figure progressively further for member states to 0.1% in the North Sea and English Channel by 2015 and to 0.5% in other European sea areas by 2020.

The Commission described the North Sea, English Channel and the Baltic Sea as “very fragile ecosystems”.

As well as effects on ecosystems that include acid rain, sulphur dioxide emissions can generate fine dust and particulate matter, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. It also reduces life expectancy in the EU by up to two years, according to the Commission.

Many ships — especially large ships — use heavy fuel oils for propulsion, and these fuels can have a sulphur content of up to 5%. In comparison, the EU currently limits the sulphur content of fuels used in trucks or passenger cars to 0.001 %.

According to the EU’s Thematic Strategy on air pollution from 2005, sulphur emissions from shipping were forecast to exceed emissions from land-based sources in Europe by 2020.

The latest Directive (2012/33/EU), proposed in July 2011, is an amendment to the original Directive (1999/32/EC) regarding sulphur content of marine fuels that was agreed in 1999. This Directive was also amended in 2005 in order to limit maximum sulphur content in shipping fuels to 1.5% in the Baltic Sea, North Sea and English Channel.


Member states now have until 18 June 2014 at the latest to amend their existing legislation on the quality of marine fuels to align it with the new Directive.

Then, from 2015 onwards, they will have to ensure that ships use fuels with a sulphur content of 0.10% or lower in the Baltic Sea, North Sea and the English Channel. However, there are other compliance methods acceptable as an alternative to low-sulphur fuels.

The Directive also stipulates that ships operating on all other European Sea areas will have to use fuels with sulphur content below 0.50% from 2020 onwards.

European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas said: “Europe is now on track to implement the commitments unanimously taken by its Member States in the IMO back in 2008. We are also aware of the compliance costs affecting the industry which we are seeking to minimize through the framework of the “Sustainable Waterborne Transport Toolbox” presented in September 2011.”

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “Improving air quality is a long-standing environmental challenge. It has taken some time but now the maritime sector is engaged. The big winners are the European citizens who will breathe cleaner air and enjoy a healthier life and industry supplying clean fuels and technology.”

Alternatives to low-sulphur fuels

As well as using low-sulphur fuels, it will also be possible to use other methods in order to comply with the latest marine emissions limits, such as using exhaust gas cleaning systems or LNG (Liquid Natural Gas)-powered ships.

Ships and marine firms will need to fund any measures necessary to comply with the sulphur limits, but transport funding bodies such as Transport Infrastructures (TEN-T), Marco Polo Programmes and also the European Investment Bank (EIB) give financial support to green maritime-based projects, according to the Commission.


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