Emissions of air pollutants like sulphur dioxide can travel long distances, and in recent years emissions from maritime transport have increasingly affected air quality in the EU.
As of 1 January 2015, EU Member States have to ensure that ships in the Baltic, the North Sea and the English Channel are using fuels with a sulphur content of no more than 0.10%. Higher sulphur contents are still possible, but only if the appropriate exhaust cleaning systems are in place.
Sulphur dioxide emissions cause acid rain and generate fine dust. This dust is dangerous for human health, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and reducing life expectancy in the EU by up to two years.
The new legislation, Directive 2012/33/EU amending Directive 1999/32/EC, was published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 17 November 2012, and the deadline for bringing Member States' legislation into compliance was 18 June 2014.
These new limits are the end of a lengthy process. Back in 2005, the European Commission's thematic strategy on air pollution concluded that without further action, sulphur emissions from shipping would exceed those from all land-based sources in the EU by 2020 (Source: Clean Air for Europe impact assessment, p31, 2005). Further action was therefore needed to improve human health and the environment.
The basic legislation for regulating sulphur emissions from ships was Directive 1999/32/EC. This was amended by Directive 2005/33/EC, which designated the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel as sulphur emission control areas (SECAs) and limited the maximum sulphur content of the fuels used by ships operating in these sea areas to 1.5% (see frequently asked questions). The fuel standards also applied to passenger ships operating on regular service outside the controlled areas. But even at the time of adoption, it was widely recognised that these standards would not be enough to address the air pollution impacts of shipping.
As shipping is an international industry, environmental, security and safety standards are developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nation specialized agency. Directive 1999/32/EC was amended to include provisions of Annex VI of IMO's Marine Pollution Convention, MARPOL 73/78. But the Commission called for further action at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to reduce emissions, and in October 2008 an amended Annex VI was adopted, lowering the maximum permissible sulphur content of marine fuels inside and outside of SECAs. These are the limits that are now in EU law as Directive 2012/33/EU.
More information on EU policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping can be found here.
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