Fuel used in international marine transport is regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL. Its Annex VI sets limits on ship exhaust emissions and also limits the sulphur content of fuels.
The Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the English Channel, and the coastline of North America became Emission Control Areas (ECAs) where special emission limits apply. The rest of the world is subject to the "global IMO" limit, unless more restrictive local regulation applies.
The global IMO limit has been modified at the 70th meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC70) which took place in October 2016. IMO members adopted a reduced maximum of 0.5% of sulphur content in marine fuels by 2020. Till that deadline, ships are allowed to use marine fuels with up to 3.50% sulphur which is the current global cap.
The IMO decision was taken following a comprehensive debate on the question of low sulphur fuel availability by 2020. In view of an informed debate, the IMO commissioned a feasibility study conducted by CE Delft to evaluate the availability of suitable marine fuels to decide if the introduction date of the 0.5% global sulphur cap should be in 2020 or deferred to 2025. The study concluded that there would be sufficient capacity in 2020 and enough investments in the refining sector to overcome the transition period.
An alliance of maritime industrial sectors, including Concawe, FuelsEurope & IPIECA, acting as funding partners, participated to a parallel study that was submitted to the IMO ahead of the MEPC70 meeting by EnSys Energy – Navistigs Consulting. This study was also presented during the MEPC70 meeting, examined the refining sector’s capacity to respond to changes in the sulphur content level of marine fuels. The study by EnSys was less straightforward in concluding that the necessary marine fuels could be made available globally by 2020. It pointed to possible significant market strain related to the very important shift induced in global refinery output by the introduction of the global sulphur cap.
This IMO’s decision is aligned with the European legislation which already back in 2012 sets the date of introduction of the 0.50 % limit at 2020, in European waters (territorial seas, exclusive economic zones and pollution control zones).
At the MEPC70, there was no unanimity among the delegations on the timing to introduce the new global sulphur cap. Essentially, all EU Member States and other developed nations such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan were in favour of a 2020 deadline, whereas some developing countries preferred 2025 as the starting date. Several delegations, including Brazil Argentina, Indonesia, Iran, Russia and the Philippines, were concerned about the 2020 timeframe. The MEPC chair agreed to address these concerns through further discussions on a possible roadmap of implementation measures. The development of such a roadmap should be decided at the next MEPC meeting planned for the spring of 2017.