MEPs back down on marine fuel sulphur limits

After a lengthy stand-off, the European Parliament has backed proposals by the European Commission and Member States to limit the sulphur content of fuel burned by ships in EU waters. The Commission has sugared the pill by promising to review the Directive in 2008, with a view to tightening the limits and expanding its coverage.

In 2002, the European Commission proposed a Directive to tackle pollution from shipping. Without action, it warned, sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions from marine sources were predicted to exceed land-based emissions by 2010 (ENDS Report 335, pp 51-52 ).

MEPs demanded tighter limits at the Directive’s first reading a year later. However, Member States backed the Commission’s proposals and the draft Directive was sent back to the Parliament for a second reading.

MEPs have now agreed the proposal - with a couple of minor amendments - and accepted the Commission’s promises to push internationally for stricter limits at the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The move should allow rapid implementation of the Directive. Several MEPs supported the softer proposals because of concerns that the Directive could be delayed indefinitely.

The average sulphur content of marine fuel is currently 2.7%. Under the new Directive, all ships operating in the Baltic Sea and all regular passenger ferries will have to use fuel with a sulphur content of no more than 1.5% from mid-2006. Ships operating in the North Sea and the English Channel have until autumn 2007 to meet the same limit.

A stricter limit of 0.1% will apply to ships on inland waterways or at berth in EU ports from 2010. This will be waived if ships switch off engines and hook up to shore-based electricity supplies.

In a move which enraged environmental campaigners, the limits will not apply in the Mediterranean and north-east Atlantic. And MEPs have abandoned their original demand for a tighter 0.5% sulphur limit to be phased in.

Instead, the Commission has promised to work at the IMO to secure a blanket reduction in fuel sulphur levels worldwide; to expand the number of sulphur oxides (SOx) emission control areas; and to tighten the sulphur limits for fuel burned in these areas from 1.5% to 0.5% or lower.

The Commission claims that the new Directive will cut SO2 emissions by 500,000 tonnes per year, but environmental groups were not impressed.

The European Environment Bureau’s Kirsten Mayer pointed out that the Directive will only cut SO2 emissions by 10% - compared to the 80% projected under the Parliament’s original proposals - and that emissions from shipping will still overtake land-based emissions by 2020. "This is a wasted chance for cleaner air in Europe," she said. "Ship emissions could be reduced much further at very low cost."

Indeed, a cost-benefit analysis prepared by the Swedish NGO Secretariat on Acid Rain,1 circulated among MEPs prior to the vote, claimed annual benefits of €6.6-10 billion - more than seven times greater than the costs.

The Commission has promised to review the Directive by 2008 with a view to extending the area covered, and tightening the limits to 0.5% sulphur content or below - depending on progress at the IMO. The Commission will also use the review to offer options for securing further emission reductions including the use of economic incentives for cleaner fuel or to encourage the fitting of abatement technologies.

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