Getting closer to the Sulfur 2020 regulation, the most important in terms of health and environmental protection for maritime transport that IMO will impose in 2020, we clarify the reasons for the situation and provide them with relevant information so that we understand what is involved. This measure will affect the price of 90% of the products that are transported in the world.
The type of fuel most used by ships in shipping is the heavy fuel oil (HFO). This is a residual derivative of the distillation of crude oil and has a tar-like appearance. The crude oil contains sulfur that, after the combustion in the engine, ends in the emissions of the ships. These ship emissions are composed of many pollutant gases, harmful and particulate matter. Among these gases, we find sulfur oxide (SOx) that are harmful to human health and cause respiratory deficiencies and lung diseases. In the atmosphere, SOx can cause acid rain, which can damage crops, forests and aquatic species, and contributes to the acidification of the oceans.
The limitation of SOx emissions from ships will improve air quality and protect the environment.
The IMO regulations for reducing sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions from ships entered into force for the first time in 2005, under Annex VI of the International Convention (see What are IMO conventions?) to prevent pollution by ships (known as the MARPOL Convention). Since then, the limits of sulfur oxides have been adjusted progressively.
As of January 1, 2020, the limit for sulfur in fuel used on board vessels operating outside the designated emission control areas will be reduced to 0.50% m / m (mass per mass). This will significantly reduce the amount of sulfur oxides emitted by ships and should have important benefits for health and the environment, especially for the populations of coastal cities.
Below you will find answers to some of the frequently asked questions about the sulfur limit.
The limitation of SOx emissions from ships will have a very positive impact on human health: how does that work?
In short, the limitation of sulfur oxides emissions from ships reduces air pollution and results in a cleaner environment. The reduction of SOx also reduces the particles of matter, small harmful particles that are formed when the fuel is burned.
A study on the impacts on human health of SOx emissions from ships, submitted to the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO in 2016 by Finland, estimated that by not reducing the SOx limit for ships As of 2020, air pollution from maritime transport would contribute to more than 570,000 additional premature deaths worldwide between 2020-2025.
Therefore, a reduction in the sulfur limit in the fuel used on board vessels will have tangible health benefits, in particular for the populations living near the ports and main shipping routes.
Why are ships the means of transport less harmful than other forms of transport?
Ships emit polluting and noxious gases, however, they transport large quantities of vital goods through the world’s oceans, and maritime trade continues to increase. In 2016, the ships transported more than 10 billion tons of trade, according to UNCTAD.
So ships have always been the most sustainable way to transport products and goods. Now, ships are becoming more energy efficient. According to the IMO regulations on energy efficiency, they support the demand for greener and cleaner transport. A ship that consumes energy efficiently burns less fuel, so it emits less air pollution.
It has sometimes been cited that only a few ships (all those that use fuel oil with the maximum sulfur content allowed) emit as many air pollutants as all the cars in the world (if all cars were using the cleanest fuel available).
Not only is this the worst case, but it does not take into account the amount of cargo transported by those ships and the relative efficiency. It is important to take into account the amount of cargo transported and the emissions per tonne of cargo transported, per kilometer traveled. Studies have shown that ships are by far the most efficient form of transport from the energy point of view, compared to other modes such as aviation, road trucks, and even railroads.
It is also important to remember that maritime transport responds to the demands of world trade. As world trade increases, more maritime transport capacity will be needed.
How can ships transport so much cargo so efficiently?
Ships are the largest machines on the planet and the largest diesel engines in the world can be found on cargo ships. These engines can be as tall as a four-story house, and as wide as three London buses. The largest marine diesel engines have more than 100,000 horsepower (in comparison, a medium-sized car can have up to 300 horsepower). But larger container ships can carry more than 20,000 containers and large bulk carriers can transport more than 300,000 tons of commodities, such as iron ore.
So powerful engines are needed to propel a ship through the sea. And it is important to consider how much energy is used to transport each tonne of cargo per kilometer. When you look at the relative energy efficiency of different modes of transport, boats are by far the most energy efficient.
Ships can reduce air pollutants by being, even more, energy efficient, so they burn less fuel and, therefore, their emissions are lower.
What is the current regulation on SOx in ship emissions and how much will be improved?
We are going to see a substantial cut: at 0.50% m / m (mass per mass) from 3.50% m / m.
For vessels operating outside the designated emission control areas, the current limit for the sulfur content of the fuel oil of ships is 3.50% m / m.
The new limit will be 0.50% m / m, which will be applied as of January 1, 2020.
There is an even stricter limit of 0.10% m / m that is already in effect in the areas of emission control (ECAS) that has been established by the IMO. This limit of 0.10% m / m is applied in the four established ECAS: the Baltic Sea area; the North Sea area; the North American area (which covers designated coastal areas outside of the United States and Canada); and the Caribbean Sea area of the United States (around Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands of the United States).
Heavy fuel suppliers already supply the other fuel that meets the 0.10% m / m limit (such as marine distillate and heavy fuel blends with ultra-low sulfur content) to ships that require this fuel to trade in the ECA.
What should ships do to comply with the new IMO regulations?
IMO regulations, such as MARPOL limit the sulfur content in heavy fuel. Therefore, vessels need to use fuel that is sufficiently low in sulfur to meet the requirements of the IMO.
The refineries can combine fuel oil with a high sulfur content (which does not meet the standards) with one with a sulfur content lower than the sulfur content required to achieve a compatible fuel. Additives can be added to improve other properties, such as lubricity.
Some ships limit air pollutants by installing exhaust gas cleaning systems, also known as “scrubbers”. This is accepted by the flag States as an alternative means to comply with the sulfur limit requirement. These scrubbers are designed to remove sulfur oxides from the boat engine and exhaust gases from the chimney. Therefore, a ship equipped with a scrubber can use heavy fuel, since the sulfur oxides emissions will be reduced to a level equivalent to the sulfur limit of the fuel oil required.
Ships may have engines that can use different fuels, which may contain low or zero sulfur. For example, liquefied natural gas, or biofuels.
Are combustible oils with a low sulfur mixture safe? Can new fuels with low sulfur content cause engine problems in a boat?
All fuel for propulsion purposes on a ship must meet the required quality standards, as set out in MARPOL Annex VI of the IMO (rule 18.3). For example, fuel oil should not include any added substance or chemical waste that endangers the safety of ships or negatively affects the performance of the machinery.
Currently, the IMO is discussing how to identify possible safety issues related to the new heavy fuel mixtures, as it is recognized that if these fuels are not administered properly, it could generate compatibility and stability problems. If necessary, an additional guide could be developed for the crew and boat operators.
A standard of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) (ISO 8217) specifies the requirements for fuels for use in marine diesel engines and boilers.
Could the 0.50% limit be delayed?
No, there can be no change in the implementation date of January 1, 2020, since it is now too late to change the date and for any revised date to take effect before January 1, 2020.
Will new fuels be needed to meet the 2020 limit? Will there be enough?
It is likely that new mixtures of heavy fuel for ships will be developed. For example, a fuel, with a very low sulfur content, can be mixed with heavy fuel oil to reduce its sulfur content.
It is probable that these new mixes cost more initially than the bunkers (fuels) of HFO “heavy fuel oil” used by the majority of the ships at present. Ships can also choose to switch to a different fuel altogether or can continue to buy the heavy fuel, but install “debuggers” to reduce the SOx output in order to have an equivalent means to meet the requirement.
Of course, some ships are already using fuel oil with low sulfur content to meet the even stricter limits of 0.10% m / m when operating in the already established emission control areas. Therefore, fuel oil mixtures suitable for ECAS will also meet the limit of 0.50% m / m in 2020. However, there is a cost differential, and these mixtures are more expensive than traditional heavy fuel.
A study commissioned by the IMO to the “Evaluation of the availability of heavy fuel” concluded that the refinery sector has the capacity to supply sufficient quantities of marine fuels with a sulfur content of 0.50% m / m or less and with a content of sulfur of 0.10% m / m or less to meet the demand for these products, while satisfying the demand for non-marine fuels.
Consistent compliance with the new limit is vital. What is IMO doing about it?
Monitoring, compliance since compliance with the new limit falls on the governments and national authorities of the Member States that are Parties to MARPOL Annex VI. Flag States (the Registration State of a ship) and port States have rights and responsibilities to enforce the rules.
IMO is working with the Member States, as well as the industry (including the shipping industry and the fuel refining industry) to identify and mitigate the transition problems so that vessels can meet the new requirement.
For example, develop a guide, develop standardized formats to report the lack of availability of heavy fuel if a ship can not obtain compatible fuel and consider the problems of verification and control.
Do small ships have to comply with the sulfur limit after 2020?
Yes, MARPOL regulations apply to all ships. Only larger vessels with a gross tonnage of 400 or more that travel to ports or offshore terminals under the jurisdiction of other parties must have an International Air Pollution Prevention Certificate, issued by the flag State of the ship. But all boat sizes will need to use fuel that meets the 0.50% limit since January 1, 2020. It is possible that some smaller boats are already using fuel oil that meets the limit, such as a suitable marine distillate for their engines . (Small ships operating in the designated emission control areas will use fuel oil that meets the 0.10% limit in those emission control areas).