New EU rules (The Sulphur Directive) to limit sulphur emissions from shipping are based on a global decision by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) supported and partly instigated by the UK.
A 2011 scientific study concludes that pollution from shipping causes 50 000 premature deaths a year, as well as contributing substantially to climate change and to other environmental hazards such as acid rain.
Cutting maritime sulphur emissions will not only prevent premature deaths. According to the above study and others, as well as the Commission’s impact assessment, the positive effect on the environment and on health spending will benefit the overall economy by between five and 25 times the costs.
We agree that this is a theme of significant public interest worthy of media attention and that newspapers are absolutely entitled to point to cost issues for shipping operators and for users.
But in its report on 2 December alleging that the Sulphur Directive is an “EU fuel diktat” which would “slap £50 on your family ferry fare to France”, the Daily Mail makes a series of claims that are either false or highly contentious.
By largely omitting the case for limiting sulphur emissions it fails to give its readers a balanced picture.
Reports in some other media – many of them closely based on the Mail’s piece – were equally misleading.
So we go into some detail to try to set the record straight below.
The reference to an “EU diktat” and to “Brussels” having “ordered” the changes is doubly false.
First, the measures coming into force in January 2015 to cut maritime sulphur emissions emanate not from “Brussels” but from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), part of the United Nations and based in London.
The EU implements IMO rules through EU legislation to avoid any inconsistencies between national implementation and to limit red tape and for shipping operators and other stakeholders.
Second, rather than any question of a “diktat” imposed on Britain, the UK voted for the IMO measures and the UK actively requested the designation of the North Sea/Channel as a Sulphur Emission Control Area (SECA), in other words a high density sea route where sulphur pollution hazards are especially high and where firmer measures are needed to reduce them.
The IMO decided that a limit of 0.1% sulphur content in fuel will apply in all SECAs – but not everywhere in EU waters as the Mail wrongly suggests – from 1 Jan 2015. In non-SECA areas, the limit remains at 3.5% until 2020, when it will be reduced to 0.5%
It is also untrue, as a quote from a stakeholder in the article incorrectly alleges, that the EU has moved to introduce the lower limits earlier than the IMO decision required – the deadline for all SECAs is 1 Jan 2015, though the US and Canadian authorities did in fact introduce the lower limits in 2012 for the extensive SECA along their own coastline.
Highly contentious claims
The claim of a £50 fare rise is made by ferry companies and is disputed by others, including some of the very maritime trade unions whose jobs, according to the Daily Mail will be placed at risk.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union has described the companies’ claims as “blatantly alarmist” and has argued that their costings were based on far higher fuel prices than currently pertain as well as pointing out that substantial EU funds have been allocated to the shipping industry to defray the costs of switching to low sulphur fuels or adopting alternative solutions allowed by the IMO rules.
Those alternative solutions include the use of “scrubbers” to filter out sulphur and the installation of technology allowing ships to use zero sulphur liquefied natural gas. Significant initial investment is required but substantially reduces compliance cost over time.
The European Commission has also worked with industry representatives to set up the European Sustainable Shipping Forum (ESSF), among other things to help the industry implement the new sulphur rules smoothly and at minimum cost.
The new rules have not been rushed in without adequate time, as the article suggests – the shipping industry has had since 2008 to prepare, as the UK Transport Minister pointed out robustly in this House of Commons debate.
It is true that some shipping routes have recently closed, though this is due to a series of economic factors and to overcapacity, not just to the costs of cutting sulphur emissions. At least one shipping company has voluntarily implemented the new requirements early.
It would seem at the very least controversial to argue that severe damage to human health – for example to asthmatic children – and to the environment across Europe and worldwide should continue to be permitted in order to allow individual routes benefitting a relatively small number of operators and users to be maintained.
The Mail article also treats unquestioningly claims that the new requirements will move traffic to other forms of transport – “modal shift” – and that doing so would increase overall pollution. In fact, the heavy fuel oil used in shipping contains 2 700 times as much sulphur as road fuel and even the new 0.1% sulphur limit for SECAs is 100 times higher than the limit for road fuel, set at 0.001%.
This and the fact that road fuel is considerably more expensive than marine fuel and will remain so means that while some modal shift is possible at least in the short-term, especially from sea routes with high fuel consumption, the net effect of the new measures on emissions is forecast to be positive even in the short-term, given the huge difference between emissions from traditional shipping fuel and from road fuel, which has for many years been subject to much tougher regulation.
In the longer-term, as more and more ships install new technology and defray investment costs and as technological innovation continues, the downward effect on emissions could be expected to become stronger still.
Meanwhile, without policy action, sulphur emissions from shipping would, according to forecasts, exceed those from all land-based sources in the EU by 2020.
Finally, the Mail suggests that ships having to change fuels when moving into the SECAs from other areas would compromise safety. There is no doubt that crews do require training to undertake fuel changes safely while sailing.
However, ships already need to change fuel in EU ports as the 0.1% sulphur limit has applied within port areas themselves for many years – so the main issue applies only to non-EU crews in transit through SECAs. The ESSF is working with operators and national authorities to raise awareness.
The other side of the story
Of course, the Daily Mail is quite right to reflect the opinions of the ferry companies and the UK Chamber of Shipping.
But it does not seem to have looked into the views of environmental groups or medical experts who support the measures.
No UK government source is quoted in the article either – a national level impact assessment by the UK concluded that implementing the Sulphur Directive would bring significant net economic benefits to the UK economy, in addition to the health benefits for individuals. See:
The Commission’s own impact assessment concluded that the overall benefits to the economy of introducing the 0.1% sulphur requirement in SECAs would exceed the costs by at least five times and perhaps as much as 25 times.
The Mail did speak to the Commission, but only with a phone call in the late afternoon of the day the article went online and on the eve of print publication, thus giving inadequate time for a comprehensive response. The Commission did however provide a quote, which the Mail placed at the very end of the article and cut in half, removing the following words:
“The UK itself proposed that the North Sea and Channel – as an area of high shipping density with a fragile eco-system – should be designated by the IMO as a Sulphur Emission Control Area (SECA).
Other SECAs include the Baltic and much of US and Canadian coastal waters and the same rules will come into effect on 1 Jan 2015 there. The new 0.1% sulphur limit for shipping fuel in SECAs is still a hundred times higher than the 0.001 % limit for fuels used in trucks and cars.”
While in a short article it is clearly not possible to include an extensive quote, in this case the Mail found room for twenty paragraphs of text all tending to give readers the impression that ferry fares would rise due to an arbitrary and unreasonable decision taken in Brussels. So it could perhaps have found room also for some additional clarifications from the Commission, especially in the absence of any other voices putting the case for cutting sulphur emissions.
With more time to respond, the Commission would also have pointed out that it has allocated substantial funding to UK projects which aim to make the transition to less dangerous fuel easier for shipping operators.
For example, the EU’s TEN-T Programme will fund to the tune of over £3m the UK’s first liquefied natural gas (LNG) bunker near Middlesbrough and the LNG propulsion system of two new ships.
It is not clear whether the Mail sought input or clarification from the IMO itself.