A small change in legislation has had a big impact on business within the shipping industry. From 1st January last year (2015), MARPOL, short for Marine Pollution, has amended Section 14 of their International Code, to reduce permitted sulphur emissions by 90% (from 1.0% to 0.10% by mass). This drastic reduction, while signalling positive change for the environment, will have far-reaching consequences for the industry at large, and the wider circle of those affected by marine operations.

Far from being standardised across international waters, the renewed controls on sulphur emissions are only restricted in ‘Emission Control Areas’, as set out in Annex VI of the convention. These are: The Baltic Sea, The North Sea area, The North American area and the United States Caribbean area. This presents something of a challenge for vessels travelling long distances, potentially entering and exiting these controlled areas multiple times in a single journey.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) is toxic to humans, plants and animals, posing a particular threat to marine life. With ships being a primary contributor to pollution levels, the instigation of tighter legislation has been many years in the making, and is both welcomed and lamented by those operating in the industry.

Whilst few people would refute the environmental benefit of such change, the challenge remains of how to best to meet the revised criteria with the available alternatives. There are a number of ways in which a vessel producing higher levels of SO2 than permitted, can become compliant. The three main options are: installing a ‘scrubber’ to the exhaust (to remove offending particles); switching to a low sulphur fuel when entering an emission-controlled zone; using an alternative fuel, such as LNG. All three come at a considerable cost, and the suitability of each option will depend on the age and type of vessel, the purpose of the voyage and the route travelled.

The task of enforcing these controls falls to Port State Control, who can employ a range of techniques to detect violations and impose appropriate sanctions (largely at the discretion of the individual Port State). However, prevention being better than cure, a system is in place for a ship to carry certification that demonstrates compliance and the measures taken to achieve this. An IAPP (International Air Pollution Prevention) certificate shows the measures that have been taken to reduce sulphur emissions, and ‘head the inspectors off at the pass’, so to speak. Notably, the absence in itself of an IAPP certificate is enough to trigger a fuller inspection.

Those outside of the shipping industry may be tempted to believe that they will remain unaffected by this change. However, the significant costs of abiding by these new controls have had to be either absorbed, by companies able to take the hit, or passed on to those paying for the diverse range of services this effects. We are all linked to the shipping industry, if only as a means to receive the many goods that travel by sea from origin to destination.  The implications of an increase in cost have therefore been felt far down the chain. Even Ferry Operators have ‘gone public’ with price hikes to cover this new legislation, and some have taken the tough decision to close long distance / low volume routes.

The early years of the 21st century have seen many industries under pressure to ‘clean up their act’ – particularly concerning the use of fossil fuels. Reducing their chemical potency or identifying viable alternatives will be high on the agenda for many years to come.