On 1 January 2020, new reduced limits on sulphur in fuel oil brought about a 70% cut in total sulphur oxide emissions from shipping, ushering in a new era of cleaner air in ports and coastal areas by using less polluting fuels.
One year on, indications are that the transition has been extremely smooth, a testament to the preparations of all stakeholders prior to the new rules entering into force.
The upper limit of the sulphur content of ships’ fuel oil was reduced to 0.5% (from 3.5% previously) – under the so-called “IMO 2020” regulation prescribed in the MARPOL Convention. This significantly reduces the amount of sulphur oxide emanating from ships.
“Through 2020, just 55 cases of 0.50% compliant fuel being unavailable had been reported in IMO’s Global Integrated Shipping Information System (GISIS),” said Roel Hoenders, Head of Air Pollution and Energy Efficiency at IMO.
“Given that more than 60,000 ships plied the world’s oceans in trade last year, this was a remarkably low percentage of ships encountering difficulty in obtaining compliant fuel. We had a great deal of preparation during 2019 and before, from all stakeholders and all indications are that there have been no significant issues with supply of low sulphur fuel oil.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, cargo-carrying ships have continued to deliver goods and commodities, including essential foods and medicines, around the world and the introduction and implementation of IMO 2020 did not cause any disruptions in trade.
Compliant fuels include very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) and marine gas oil (MGO). Some ships limit their air pollutants by installing exhaust gas cleaning systems, also known as “scrubbers”. This is accepted under the MARPOL Convention as an alternative means to meet the sulphur limit requirement. Over 2,350 systems have formally been reported to IMO as an approved “equivalent method” by Administrations (flag States).)
Ships can also have engines which are able to use different fuels, which may contain low or zero sulphur, such as liquefied natural gas or biofuels.
The majority of ships trading worldwide switched from using heavy fuel oil (HFO) to using VLSFO. Generally speaking, these are new blends of fuel oil, produced by refineries to meet the new limit, in accordance with IMO guidance and ISO standards.
Guidance issued by IMO on dealing with the new fuel blends in advance of the new requirement addressed implications of switching to VLSFO, including assessing and managing risks and highlighting potential safety risks, so that the risks can be mitigated.
Through 2020, and into 2021 to date, IMO has not received any reports of safety issues linked to VLSFO.