Ships will have to use low sulphur fuel, international body rules

The International Maritime Organisation has confirmed its decision to impose lower sulphur limits on fuel used by ships from 2020 • BirdLife Malta welcomes decision, wants Malta to endorse more ambitious target

Ships will have to use low sulphur fuel from 1 January 2020 in line with new rules imposed by the International Maritime Organisation
Ships will have to use low sulphur fuel from 1 January 2020 in line with new rules imposed by the International Maritime Organisation

Dangerous sulphur oxide emissions from ships will be reduced considerably from 1 January after new fuel ruling by the International Maritime Organisation.

The decision is expected to impact Malta due to the size of its maritime fleet and the large presence of ships including cruise vessels visiting its ports.

The IMO 2020 rule will limit the amount of sulphur in heavy fuel oil used by ships to power their engines.

For vessels operating outside designated emission control areas the sulphur content in fuel will be reduced to 0.5%, while in designated emission control areas (ECAs) the limit will remain at 0.1%.

The current limit is 3.5%, so the change is significant and for most ships will mean a switch to new types of compliant fuel oils.

Malta-Sicily channel busiest shipping lane

A staggering 85,000 tankers and other ships sail through the waters between Malta and Sicily annually, making this one of the busiest shipping regions in the world.

The Sicilian channel has yet to be designated as an ECA.

Fumes from these ships, some of which are more polluting than Malta’s defunct oil power stations, are regularly blown all over the island.

The IMO’s decision to set 1 January 2020 was already envisaged in regulations adopted in 2008.

The decision was re-confirmed in October 2016 and also during an IMO symposium for stake holders held in the past days.

Birdlife Malta which over the past months has raised awareness on pollution caused by cruise ships visiting Maltese ports described the IMO’s decision as a very positive one.

“This would in practical terms mean less sulphur oxide emissions from this industry which still uses some of the most polluting fuels,” Nick Barbara, BirdLife conservation manager, said.

Monitorring fuel quality

But Barbara insisted it remained to be seen how this decision will be implemented and tested.

“Malta has one of the largest ship registries, and the respective authorities will need to have the capacity to spot check fuel quality content and be able to enforce accordingly,” he said.

Barbara called on Malta to endorse a more ambitious target of declaring the Mediterranean an Emission Control Area (ECA) for both sulphur and nitrogen, while calling for more protection of coastal residents from polluting cruise liners and tankers.

“Malta with the size of its ship register, and its position in the Central Mediterranean can still be instrumental in helping establish such a target of a Mediterranean ECA, which can only be achieved if all Mediterranean states (EU and non-EU) agree to it,” Barbara added.

The most significant impacts of ship emissions can be felt inside Malta's ports
The most significant impacts of ship emissions can be felt inside Malta's ports

When it comes to local effects, the most significant impacts are caused by shipping close to our shores, such as cruise liners and tankers calling at Maltese ports. 

“Here the Maltese government can advocate for the use of cleaner fuels to limit the impacts such emissions would have on resident populations, and these can go beyond the targets set by IMO,” Barbara said.

The IMO’s decision is expected to have significant benefits for human health and the environment but it also represents a challenge for the industry.

"Collaboration among key stakeholders is essential for the smooth landing of IMO 2020," IMO Secretary General Kitack Lim said, opening a symposium on the implementation of the new measure, which was attended by over 300 delegates. 

He highlighted the tremendous amount of work undertaken to prepare for IMO 2020 by all stakeholders, since the 2020 date was confirmed in 2016, including a series of guidelines for ship owners, and flag and port states.

More in World