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Cut ship pollution but stop gold-plating of EU rules

9 March 2012

The Transport Commitee publishes its report on sulphur emissions by ships.

More stringent limits are essential to cut sulphur emissions from ships, but the UK government must negotiate to ensure the EU Directive goes no further than the revised International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) Annex VI agreed in 2008, say MPs in a report examining a draft EU directive aimed at curbing this significant source of air pollution.

Chair's comments

Launching Sulphur emissions by ships, Louise Ellman, Chair of the Transport Committee said,

"We endorse the Government’s support for the more stringent regulation of sulphur emissions contained within the revised Annex VI because it will markedly improve air quality and deliver significant health and environmental benefits. These regulations were agreed on a worldwide basis through the International Maritime Organisation after several years of discussion.

We believe that it's not appropriate for the Commission to go further than these globally-agreed limits by imposing tighter regulations on shipping operators at this time. We therefore endorse the UK Government’s efforts to resist any additional requirements.

We do not agree, however, with the Minister's assertion that the Government will not negotiate with the Commission on its proposals; the Government will have to forge alliances with other Member States. We recommend that UK negotiators focus on removing the tighter emissions limits for passenger ships outside specified Emissions Control Areas and ensure that the directive replicates Annex VI safeguards regarding the non-availability of low-sulphur fuel."

Technology not yet ready

The Committee recognises that the benefits of the revised MARPOL Annex VI significantly exceed the costs of compliance; acknowledges that costs will fall most directly on ship operators; and accepts that the abatement technology required for passenger shipping may not yet be ready for widespread commercial use.

However MPs also remind the shipping sector that tighter emissions limits have been under discussion for many years; operators could have been more proactive about developing effective pollution abatement technology; and must shoulder the cost of ensuring that their activities comply with relevant environmental legislation.

"Clearly the Government must work with industry to identify available abatement technologies and help overcome barriers to the development of this equipment. But when tough emission standards were first imposed on cars, suitable technology emerged far more rapidly than much of the motor industry forecast and cost far less than was predicted at the outset."

adds Louise Ellman.


In addition, the committee conclude that the UK Government must:

  • Establish how the Commission will monitor the impact of the revised Directive on maritime sulphur emissions from the shipping industry.
  • Establish what the Commission plans to do in order to curb the risk of 'modal shift' from sea to road transport.
  • Push the Commission to clarify the definition of passenger ships on regular service and the use of techniques such as emissions averaging.

Background information 

Sulphur dioxide is a major cause of air pollution and causes significant health problems. EU sulphur emissions are decreasing, but emissions from shipping are increasing and shipping is expected to be the main source of EU sulphur emissions by 2020.

Maritime sulphur emissions are regulated by an international convention—MARPOL Annex VI. A revised Annex VI, incorporating tighter limits on sulphur emissions, was agreed in 2008. The European Commission has now brought forward proposals to incorporate the revised Annex VI into EU law, which would be directly applicable to the UK. These EU draft Directive also includes a number of extra provisions such as about the sulphur content of fuel used by passenger ships.  The Commission's proposals were the subject of this inquiry.

Modelling suggests that the benefits of the revised Annex VI and the Commission's draft directive outweigh the costs, but while the benefits are shared widely across society the costs fall directly on ship operators. 

Many of the concerns of the shipping operators - about the availability of low-sulphur fuel, the maturity of pollution abatement technology and the timetable for implementation - stem from the requirements of the revised MARPOL Annex VI agreed in 2008, rather than from the draft Directive.  

The draft directive is subject to the qualified majority voting procedure which means that no member state has a power of veto and compromise agreements require support of several member states.

Further Information