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2020 global sulfur limit

How the new regulations will impact the industry

In recent years, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been adopting more stringent measures to clean up the maritime industry and protect the environment. One of the most important of these is the new cap on sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions, which is set to make waves in the shipping world.

In 2016, at the 70th session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 70), the implementation date for the new global sulfur cap was confirmed. Following a review of the availability of compliant fuel oil, the Committee decided that the new limit will come into force on January 1, 2020. From that date, ships will be only be allowed to use fuel oil with a sulfur content of 0.50% m/m or less. So how is the industry preparing for the change?

By reducing the limit on SOx emissions from 3.50% m/m to 0.50% m/m, the IMO intends to restrict the environmental impact of shipping. To ensure compliance with the tightened regulations, shipping companies have two main options: They can install scrubbers on vessels or switch to greener, alternative fuels.

The 2020 global sulfur limit[ … ]should have major health and environmental benefits for the world, particularly for populations living close to ports and coasts.
Source: IMO – The 2020 Global Sulphur Limit FAQ

Scrubbing up

Exhaust gas cleaning systems (commonly referred to as scrubbers) are an effective way to reduce the SOx content in exhaust emissions. There are three main types of wet scrubber: open, closed, and hybrid. The open type uses seawater to clean exhaust gases, while closed-loop scrubbers use freshwater and can include a holding tank to enable zero discharge for a particular period. This can be especially beneficial for vessels operating in ECAs (Emission Control Areas), where emissions restrictions are particularly strict. On the other hand, scrubbers can be expensive to install and the harmful substances they extract must be disposed of safely.

Alternative fuels to clear the air

The global sulfur cap will also see an increasing number of shipping companies switching from heavy fuel oil (HFO) to alternative fuels. In doing this, there are a number of options available. Marine gas oil (MGO) is one of the simplest alternatives to implement. With a max sulfur content of 0.1%, MGO not only complies with the coming regulations, but also presents a viable option for ships sailing in ECAs. However, the drawback is that it can be up to twice as expensive as regular HFO.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is another green fuel that is likely to become more widely adopted in coming years. Compared to HFO, LNG virtually eliminates SOx emissions and significantly reduces NOx and CO2 emissions. In addition to the environmental benefits, it is also expected to be less costly than MGO.

While it is not yet widespread, LNG is predicted to take off as bunkering infrastructure is built up. The IMO has also recognized its potential: the organization has published several studies on the feasibility and use of LNG as a fuel for shipping and formally adopted regulations for its safe use on January 1, 2017.

Fleet-wide adoption of LNG as a fuel will depend on the availability, financial considerations, and clear regulatory guidance.
Source: IMO – Studies on the feasibility and use of LNG as a fuel for shipping

Preparing for 2020

While it is difficult to predict exactly which measures shipping companies will take to ensure compliance with the 2020 sulfur cap, change is certainly on its way. An effective way to prepare for the tougher limits is to implement a continuous emission monitoring system, such as SKF BlueMon. This supports emission monitoring and tracking, helping ship owners to stay compliant—wherever they operate.

If you would like to learn more about the 2020 sulfur limit, you can find a summary of key points in the IMO’s FAQ.


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