IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim welcomed the decision which he said reflected the Organization’s determination to ensure that international shipping remains the most environmentally sound mode of transport.

“The reductions in sulphur oxide emissions resulting from the lower global sulphur cap are expected to have a significant beneficial impact on the environment and on human health, particularly that of people living in port cities and coastal communities, beyond the existing emission control areas,” Mr. Lim said.

Further work to ensure effective implementation of the 2020 global sulphur cap will continue in the Sub-Committee on Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR).

Regulations governing sulphur oxide emissions from ships are included in Annex VI to the International Convention for the prevention of Pollution from ships (MARPOL Convention). Annex VI sets progressive stricter regulations in order to control emissions from ships, including sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrous oxides (NOx) - which present major risks to both the environment and human health.

The date of 2020 was agreed in amendments adopted in 2008. When those amendments were adopted, it was also agreed that a review should be undertaken by 2018 in order to assess whether sufficient compliant fuel oil would be available to meet the 2020 date. If not, the date could be deferred to 2025. That review was completed in 2016 and submitted to MEPC 70. The review concluded that sufficient compliant fuel oil would be available to meet the fuel oil requirements.

Under the new global cap, ships will have to use fuel oil on board with a sulphur content of no more than 0.50% m/m, against the current limit of 3.50%, which has been in effect since 1 January 2012. The interpretation of “fuel oil used on board” includes use in main and auxiliary engines and boilers. Exemptions are provided for situations involving the safety of the ship or saving life at sea, or if a ship or its equipment is damaged.

Ships can meet the requirement by using low-sulphur compliant fuel oil. An increasing number of ships are also using gas as a fuel as when ignited it leads to negligible sulphur oxide emissions. This has been recognised in the development by IMO of the International Code for Ships using Gases and other Low Flashpoint Fuels (the IGF Code), which was adopted in 2015. Another alternative fuel is methanol which is being used on some short sea services.

Ships may also meet the SOx emission requirements by using approved equivalent methods, such as exhaust gas cleaning systems or “scrubbers”, which “clean” the emissions before they are released into the atmosphere. In this case, the equivalent arrangement must be approved by the ship’s Administration (the flag State).

The new global cap will not change the limits in SOx Emission Control Areas (ECAS) established by IMO, which since 1 January 2015 has been 0.10% m/m. The ECAs established under MARPOL Annex VI for SOx are: the Baltic Sea area; the North Sea area; the North American area (covering designated coastal areas off the United States and Canada); and the United States Caribbean Sea area (around Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands).

BIMCO has responded to the decision at the International Maritime Organization’s MEPC on the implementation of the global sulphur cap for shipping.

Lars Robert Pedersen, Deputy Secretary General at BIMCO gave the following statement:

“BIMCO respects the decision of the MEPC to move ahead and implement the global sulphur cap by 1 January 2020. We also noted the concerns raised by a number of IMO member states about availability of fuel oil in some regions of the world and the ability of their refineries to respond adequately.BIMCO recognises that the global sulphur cap implementation is about transition and would have been equally challenging either in 2020 or 2025. The transitional issues have been highlighted and we continue to hold the view that this will not be a “walk in the park”. The decision by the MEPC does not change this view.”

“BIMCO is appreciative of the further decision by the MEPC to recognise the need for effective implementation as suggested by a number of IMO member states and industry organisations including BIMCO. The years leading up to 2020 must now be used effectively to alleviate the consequences of the unprecedented disruptive change in supply of marine fuels by 1 January 2020 and ensure a continued level playing field in the industry.” Mr Pedersen said.

The decision to implement a global sulphur cap of 0.50% m/m (mass/mass) in 2020 has also been applauded by environmental groups Transport & Environment and Seas At Risk, which are members of the Clean Shipping Coalition. This will reduce SO2 emissions – which cause premature deaths from diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease – from shipping by 85% compared with today’s levels.

The global cap on the content of sulphur in marine fuel by 2020 or 2025 was first agreed by acclamation in 2008. The sulphur limit for marine heavy fuel oil is 3,500 times higher than the limit for diesel used in Europe’s cars and trucks, making the shipping industry by far the world's biggest emitter of SO2.

Bill Hemmings, shipping director at Transport & Environment, said:

“This is a landmark decision and we are very pleased that the world has bitten the bullet and is now tackling poisonous sulphuric fuel in 2020. This decision reduces the contribution of shipping to the world’s air pollution impact from about 5% down to 1.5% and will save millions of lives in the coming decades. Now the focus should shift towards implementing this decision, which is a big issue since it’s not yet clear who should police ships on the high seas, and how.”

The date of implementation was made dependent on the results of a study to determine whether enough fuel below 0.5% sulphur content would be available by 2020. The study, commissioned by the IMO and completed last August, shows that under all scenarios and sensitivity options considered, there will be sufficient clean fuel available in 2020, paving the way for today’s decision. If it had been found that enough fuel would not be available by 2020, postponement to 2025 would have been on the cards.

John Maggs, senior policy officer at Seas at Risk, said:

"Air pollution, including from shipping, is a global health and environmental scourge. The world has waited a long time for the shipping industry to clean up its act and move towards cleaner fuel. That moment has come. Cleaner shipping fuel will become a legal reality in 2020. Thousands of premature deaths will be avoided and millions of people around the world will now quite literally be able to breathe easier."

A study reviewing the health impacts by a group of leading researchers from the United States and Finland found that on-time (2020 not 2025) implementation of a global low-sulphur fuel cap for shipping would prevent some 200,000 premature deaths due to less toxic fumes, mainly in coastal communities in the developing world.  This includes 134,650 avoided premature deaths in Asia, 32,100 in Africa and 20,800 in Latin America.