Tackling the issue of air quality in and around the European Union (EU) is one of the European Commission’s (EC’s) most pressing environmental issues. As of January 2015, the revised EU Sulphur Directive, which addresses air pollution from shipping, reduced the amount of sulphur present in marine fuels to .10 per cent in EU Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs). But the reductions won’t stop there. 

“To further minimise competitive distortion between EU sea areas and decrease sulphur oxide pollutants in the air, the Sulphur Directive mandates the entry into force of a sulphur limit of 0.5 per cent as of 2020 for all EU waters also outside the SECAs,” says EC Environment, Maritime Affairs, Fisheries, Health and Food Safety spokesperson, Enrico Brivio. 

“Since the health impacts of maritime air pollution remain a concern in all areas of the EU, the Commission would welcome the introduction of additional SECAs in other EU waters, which is most effectively done by Member States through the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) before transposition into EU law. Regardless of the developments with the IMO on the mandatory global cap (0.5 per cent), we will continue with our Sulphur reduction mandate for 2020.” 

The current limits are the culmination of many policy steps to combat the issue of air pollution. In 2005, the EC concluded that without further action sulphur emissions from shipping would exceed those from all land-based sources in the EU by 2020.

However, achieving air quality levels that do not give rise to significant negative impacts or risks to human health and the environment is no easy task. Compliance has proven to be difficult due to a variety of obstacles not easily cleared.  For instance, detecting whether vessels underway are sulphur compliant can be costly, and the competence and capacity of each inspector differs at every port. Once enacted in national law, the Sulphur Directive should help combat some of these issues, and make enforcement more manageable. 

A recent Implementing Decision of the EU will facilitate this process by laying down a cost-effective and harmonised approach for inspections, fuel sampling and better cooperation among EU states. 

“So far, 23 Member States have partially or completely enacted the Directive into national legislation,” says Brivio. “The Commission is urging those Member States that have not yet done so to send, as soon as possible, details about how EU legislation on the sulphur content of marine fuels is being enacted in their domestic law.

The Commission has put into place additional initiatives meant to further the goal of strengthening the compliance culture in the EU.

“A new, voluntary electronic enforcement tool, Thetis-S, allows competent authorities in Member States to electronically record and share the outcomes of their sulphur inspections,” says Brivio. “The system will allow the level of non-compliance across the EU to be accurately assessed. By the end of February, nearly 500 inspection results had been entered into the system with only very few non-compliance cases reported so far. This is a positive sign but of course it is still too early to draw any conclusion regarding overall compliance.”