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Countdown to the new global sulphur limit on ships' fuel

It’s less than a month for the key date: from January 1st 2020, the sulphur limit in the fuel used by ships all over the world will be 0.50% mass by mass. This represents a 80% reduction of the current limit (3.50%). In the Emission Control Areas the limit will stay fixed at 0.10%.

Following the MARPOL Convention for the Prevention of the Pollution from Ships, this entails a deep transformation of the fuel used by ships globall, thus significantly reducing its polluting emissions and delivering great benefits for the human health and environment, specially in those cities and towns located in the coastline.

The main type of hydrocarbon used as ship fuel is heavy fuel oil, the remnant from the distillation process of crude oil. Crude oil contains sulphur that, after the engine’s combustion process, is released in the atmosphere. Sulphur oxides are harmful to human health, causing respiratory problems and lung diseases. They can also produce acid rain that harms crops, forests and wildlife, contributing too to the ocean acidification.

The OMI (International Maritime Organization) established its rules to reduce the emissions of sulphur oxides in 2005, by virtue of the Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of the Pollution from Ships, also known as MARPOL Convention. Since then, the sulphur oxides limits have been gradually toughened.

Now, in order to make a smoothless transition to the new 0.50% limit, ships are expected to start using the new fuel oil starting October or November.


The risks of the new fuels

The OMI acknowledges the safety problems that the new fuel mixtures might suppose. That’s why it has created guidelines that give advice about the necessary steps to face these risks.

Moreover, the International Standards Organization (ISO) is preparing a specification that will provide additional guidance about how to apply the existing ISO 8217 for fuels for use in marine diesel engines and boilers, for instance about the compatibility and stability of the new fuel oil mixtures.


Useful resources

A new IMO leaflet outlines the requirement, answers the most frequently asked questions about the rule and provides a list of the instruments supporting implementation, best practice guidance, port State control and sampling guidelines and others.

In October 2018, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) approved the Guidance on the development of a ship implementation plan for the consistent implementation of the 0.50% sulphur limit under MARPOL Annex VI. 

Precisely this will be the subject of the first module of the free online e-learning course for seafarers and others that is being developed by the IMO.

Additionally, later this year, the IMO will publish a compilation of all related guidance, best practices and so on.  

Finally, the IMO holded a symposium about the 2020 rule on 17th-18th October 2019. The event took stock of the preparations for the IMO 2020 rule, and to discuss the role of alternative fuels in the decarbonization of international shipping. e

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