2020 marks the start of a new era in marine fuels. From 1st January 2020, a new global emissions limit on all maritime vessels comes into force, capping the amount of sulphur (SOx) emissions that ships can produce.

Why is the change being made?

Sulphur emissions are associated with a number of environmental risks, including increased acidification of oceans, acid rain as well as respiratory and other impacts on human health. Efforts to reduce the amount of sulphur emitted from ships is expected to reduce these potential impacts.

In 2008, members of the global body responsible for shipping safety, security, and the prevention of shipping pollution – the UN agency known as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – agreed to reduce SOx emissions from ship exhausts. The requirements regarding air pollution from ships are stipulated under Annex VI of the MARPOL Convention. It was agreed that the sulphur cap was to come into force in either 2020 or 2025, depending on when it was feasible to do so.

In 2016, the IMO confirmed that the global limit would be reduced to 0.50% by mass (m/m) of sulphur in marine fuels, coming into effect on January 1st 2020, although since 2015 the EU (including the UK) and others have gone even further to set more stringent Emissions Control Areas on shipping emissions in territorial waters, with a 0.10% m/m sulphur limit.

Due to this being a globally enforced change as one that affects a very large industry that is key for a large volume of global trade movements, it is possible that the effects could be felt outside of just the shipping industry. For fuel suppliers such as Fuels Industry UK’s members, there are choices to be made by their customers about what fuels they may want to use. Low sulphur fuels come in different forms, but ships who can remove sulphur themselves could use high sulphur (<3.5% m/m) fuels and still comply, and a change in production of one fuel could affect the rest of the product mix too. 

The global scale of this change is such that the impact may not just be on the shipping and fuel industries.

Before the decision was taken to implement in 2020, a number of studies were undertaken that considered if enough fuels could be delivered as well as what impact that this change might have on all petroleum products. In anticipation of the change, the International Standard Organisation (ISO) issued a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) to complement the existing marine fuel standard - ISO 8217:2017. ISO/PAS 23263:2019 highlights technical considerations for fuels meeting the 0.5% m/m sulphur limit.

It is expected that enough compliant fuels can be delivered, however, it will be interesting to see in the coming months what changes in response to this ambitious and global change.

To find out more, read the briefing paper on IMO 2020.

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