New rules for cleaner ship fuels will improve English Channel air quality

December 19th, 2012 by European Commission

Commodore starts up her diesel engines in St Peter Port harbour on 6 June 2012 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

New European environmental rules on marine fuels, entered into force on 17 December 2012.

These rules will substantially reduce air pollution and its impacts on human health. Air pollutants from maritime shipping are transported long distances and contribute increasingly to the air quality problems in many European cities.

Without any action, sulphur emissions from shipping in EU sea areas would exceed those from all land-based sources by 2020.

The revised legislation will put an end to this trend reducing not only sulphur emissions but more importantly particulate matter, marking a clear step forward in protection of people’s health and the environment.

Siim Kallas, European Commission Vice-President, said “Europe is now on track to implement the commitments unanimously taken by its Member States in the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) back in 2008.”

“We are aware of the compliance costs affecting the industry which we are seeking to minimize through the framework of the “Sustainable Waterborne Transport Toolbox” presented in September 2011.”

Janez Potočnik, Environment Commissioner, said “improving air quality is a long-standing environmental challenge. It has taken some time but now the maritime sector is engaged.”

“The big winners are the European citizens who will breathe cleaner air and enjoy a healthier life and industry supplying clean fuels and technology,” he said.

The Directive entering into force on 17 December 2012 is guided by standards developed at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

It progressively reduces the maximum sulphur content of marine fuels from the current 3.5% to 0.5% by January 2020.

In some very fragile ecosystems such as the Baltic Sea and the North Sea including the English Channel, the maximum sulphur content will be reduced to 0.1%, already in 2015.

As an alternative to low sulphur fuels, ships can opt for equivalent compliance methods such as exhaust gas cleaning systems or LNG-powered ships.

M/F Glutra is the first LNG-powered ferry in the world photographed in Møre og Romsdal, Norway on 21 July 2002 (click image to expand - image courtesy of and ©Leo-setä)

Current EU transport funding instruments, such as TEN-T and Marco Polo Programmes, as well as the European Investment Bank (EIB) give financial support to green maritime-based projects.

Furthermore, the European Commission has launched activities that encourage the use of marine LNG as ship fuel.

It will also continue to implement medium- and long-term measures to promote green ship technology, alternative fuels and the development of green transport infrastructure in the context of the Sustainable Waterborne Transport Toolbox, jointly with industry and Member States.

This Directive is the latest element of the EU policy framework on air pollution which has been developed over the last 30 years.

The European Commission is currently carrying out a comprehensive review of the policy framework with a view to updating it in 2013.

By 18 June 2014 at the latest, European Member States will have to amend their existing legislation on the quality of marine fuels to align it with the new Directive.

The Directive provides legal certainty for the required investments by ship owners, port operators and refineries.

From 2015 onwards, Member States are asked to ensure that ships use fuels with a sulphur content of not more than 0.10% in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea including the English Channel.

Equivalent compliance methods, such as exhaust cleaning systems, are accepted.

From 2020 onwards, ships operating on all other European Sea areas will have to use fuels with sulphur content below 0.50%.


Ships traditionally use heavy fuel oils for propulsion. Heavy fuel oils can have a sulphur content of up to 5 %. In comparison, the sulphur content of fuels used in trucks or passenger cars must not exceed 0.001 %.

Sulphur dioxide emissions cause acid rain and generate fine dust. This dust is dangerous for human health, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and reducing life expectancy in the EU by up to two years.


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