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New Regulations To Cut Sulphur Levels

In moves to reduce air pollution, and some help towards tackling the climate emergency, sulphur will be cut drastically from global shipping transport fuels in 2020. Under new rules brought in by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) from 1 January 2020, only fuel oil with a very low sulphur content will be allowed to be used by ships.

The plans for the cut have been over a decade in the making, and almost all shipping around the world is expected to comply, or face stiff penalties. However, this has already cause a spike in low-sulphur fuel prices, and there are concerns that the price of air transport will soar.

Kitack Lim, the secretary general of the IMO is hoping that the benefits of the regulations will soon be noticed, and that the implementation process will be smooth. “Member states, the shipping industry and fuel oil suppliers have been working for the past three years to prepare for this major change.”

The regulations are aimed at reducing and clearing up sulphur emissions, which are responsible for acid rain and many forms of air pollution, but not directly for tackling the climate emergency. Although the kinds of fuel that contain high levels of sulphur are usually high in carbon too. The costs of cleaning up sulphur are hoped to induce shipping companies to be more efficient with fuel use, leading to cuts in greenhouse gasses.

The move to cleaner fuels could substantially add to costs, with an estimated $400 (£303) a tonne of fuel oil today to cost as much as $600 a tonne, according to the International Chamber Of Shipping. These costs could be passed on and absorbed throughout transport shipping chains, and manufacturing.

The regulations cut the sulphur content from 3.5 per cent down to 0.5 percent, which is enforced under the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships. The IMO estimates that it will cut sulphur oxide emissions from ships by 77 per cent, which equates to an annual reduction of approximately 8.5m tonnes.

For a long time, fuel oil for shipping has been one of the dirtiest forms of fossil fuel, made up of low-value and cheap crude oil that is unsuitable or too expensive to refine in to higher grade products such as petrol for cars and kerosine for aeroplanes. Ship engines are designed to work with the low grade fuel oil, and with emissions being created far from land, the less-visible pollution created has been largely ignored by governments.

There are alternatives available to low-grade, high-sulphur fuel oil becoming more available, but at a higher cost. Liquified natural gas is still a fossil fuel, but much cleaner, and the infrastructure allowing its use is now much more widespread. Biofuels are being investigated as future alternatives, with options such as using fish guts for fuel, and hopes for harnessing hydrogen fuels in the form of ammonia for ship engines.

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