Global shipping to slash sulfur emissions worldwide

Container ships produce enormous amounts of sulfur emissions.
Container ship. Frank Schwichtenberg (CC BY 3.0)

The governing body for maritime shipping is mandating sharp reductions in sulfur emissions by 2020. Sulfur caps are already required by governments in parts of China, the US, and Europe. However ships often switch to high-sulfur fuel after leaving those areas. The new rules will be voluntary. However ships violating them could be fined or lose their insurance.

Complete decarbonization of shipping is the goal. Some smaller ships now already use fuel cells and batteries for power. However this technology doesn’t exist yet for massive ocean-going cargo ships. Hopefully it will someday. Rather than switching to low-sulfur fuel, some cargo ships plan to use scrubbers to clean their emissions. However, that’s really just a stop-gap measure. A few cargo ships plan to run on Liquid Natural Gas, which has very low emissions. For that to happen, they will need LNG fueling stations worldwide. Mostly though, the ships will switch to low-sulfur fuel, which is more expensive. However, health costs and deaths and illnesses from pollution in shipping areas will drop substantially.

Roughly 70 percent of shipping emissions occur within 250 miles of land, exposing hundreds of millions of people to harmful pollutants.

Starting January 1, 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will require that all fuels used in ships contain no more than 0.5 percent sulfur. The cap is a significant reduction from the existing sulfur limit of 3.5 percent and is well below the industry average of 2.7 percent sulfur content. Public health experts estimate that once the 2020 sulfur cap takes effect, it would prevent roughly 150,000 premature deaths and 7.6 million childhood asthma cases globally each year.

“There are very few examples of air quality regulations that have as broad a reach of benefits as this one.”