Sulphur is by nature present in liquid and solid fuels such as oil and coal. Consequently, most marine fuel contain sulphur. The combustion of these fuels creates sulphur oxides (SOX) and particulate matter including primary soot particles, and secondary inorganic sulphate particles formed as a result of atmospheric oxidation of sulphur dioxide. During the combustion process, nitrogen oxides (NOx) are also formed.
The emissions of sulphur dioxide and of particulate matter can cause damage to human health and to the environment. Furthermore, the emission of nitrogen oxides contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, which may also be harmful to human health and vegetation.
These emissions can be reduced by imposing limits to the sulphur content of fuels as a condition for their use in Community territories. This was the aim of the Council Directive of 26 April 1999 relating to the reduction of sulphur content of certain liquid fuels, amending Directive 93/12/EEC (SUL-001). The directive, however, does not apply to most of the fuels that are used by seagoing vessels.
Nevertheless, atmospheric emissions from seagoing ships contain air pollutants, greenhouse gases and ozone depleting substances. These emissions are hazardous for the sea and they do not stop at national boundaries. Ships' air pollutant emissions, particularly in coastal areas and in ports, spread to land and cause environmental problems which affect human health, the environment and the built surroundings. Wherever they are emitted, ships' greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global climate change and their emissions of ozone-depleting substances damage the ozone layer.
Despite major efforts at international level, so far no environmental issues have completely been solved. On the contrary, some problems, such as climate change, the ozone in the troposphere or the lower layers of atmosphere are getting worse. In other words, there is much room for improvement. Seagoing vessels are largely susceptible to these improvements, as they are, so far, not much included in the majority of EU legislation on emissions.
Therefore, Parliament and Council proposed a Directive amending Directive 1999/32/EC on the sulphur content of marine fuels. The Commission adopted the proposal on 20 November 2002. Two and a half years later, Parliament and Council approved Directive 2005/33/EC amending Directive 1999/32/EC as regards the sulphur content of marine fuels (SUL-002).
Within its provisions, the revised Directive was setting:
- A threshold of 1.5% for sulphur content of marine fuels used by all ships on the North Sea, English Channel and the Baltic Sea, according to the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) agreement on the so-called SOX emission control area.
- A threshold of 1.5% for the sulphur content of marine fuels used by passenger vessels on regular services to or from any Community port, in accordance with EU standards for passenger ships.
- A 0.1% threshold for the sulphur content of fuels used by ships and inland waterway vessels while they are at berth in EU ports as from 1 January 2010.
In the meantime, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) established a scheme (Annex VI of IMO Marpol Convention) to designate the North Sea, the English Channel and the Baltic Sea as a low sulphur area for ships, a so-called 'Sulphur Emission Control Area' (SECA). With this arrangement, the sulphur content of marine fuel used in these and similar areas will be further reduced to 0.1% by 1 January 2015. At present, the considerably reduced norm of 1% already applies. This strict standard applies to shipping through the Channel and in the North and Baltic Seas. The current standard for the rest of the world is 4.5%; as from 2020 it will be converted to a 0.5% standard.
The European Commission proposed to incorporate the IMO agreement through the revision of Directive 1999/32. The proposed revision however appeared to go beyond what was decided at IMO level on the sulphur content of marine fuel. At the same time the Commission announced a 'toolbox' in which it wants to support the maritime industry in the transition from high to low sulphur fuel for the maritime industry. In summer 2012 Parliament and Council reached a first-reading compromise on the Commission's proposal. Parliament formally endorsed the compromise in September 2012. Once Council adopts it, the revised Directive can enter into force. Member States will then have 18 months to adopt the necessary provisions at national level. The revised sulphur Directive will be setting the limits regarding the sulphur content of marine fuels to 0.1% within SECAs as of 1st January 2015 and to 0.5% elsewhere in Europe as of 2020.
Some relevant documents:
SUL-002: Directive 2005/33/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 July 2005 amending Directive 1999/32/EC relating to the sulphur content of marine fuels (European Commission and the Council)
SUL-001: Council directive 1999/32/EC of 26 April 1999 relating to a reduction in the sulphur content of certain liquid fuels and amending Directive 93/12/EEC (European Council)