What is the IMO 2020 sulfur cap?

On the 1st of January 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted a global limit on sulfur in ships’ exhaust gases to secure a cleaner shipping industry by reducing man-made air pollution. This regulation affects all ship owners and shipping companies worldwide. Let us dive into what the IMO 2020 sulfur restrictions are and what significance they will have.

The primary type of vessel oil is heavy fuel oil (HFO), a residue stemming from crude oil distillation. HFO is highly efficient with its energy content, inexpensive, and difficult to refine. Still, crude oil contains sulfur, which, when exposed to engine combustion processes, ends as SOx emission. Add to this, some of the world’s largest engines, auxiliary engines, and boilers can be found on vessels, bunkers, and cargo ships, which ultimately leads to massive exhaust gas streams bringing substantial health concerns for people.

Ship Diesel Engine

The World’s Largest Engines

An engine in some of the largest cargo ships can be as tall as 16 meters and as broad as 8 meters. Thereby, the size is equivalent to a four-floor building. Such an engine can have more than 100,000 horsepower (HP), whereas a regular mid-size car typically has up to 200 HP. Some of the world’s largest cargo ships can transport more the 20,000 containers, while some of the world’s largest bulk carriers can ship more than 300,000 tons of goods and commodities.

With such massive engines, marine environmental impacts are notable. The emissions from one large cruise ship are equivalent to:

Sulfur oxides (SOx) = 376 million cars

Carbon dioxide (CO2) = 83,678 cars

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) = 421,153 cars

Black carbon = 1.05 million cars

IMO Sulfur Cap
The IMO 2020 regulations reduce the allowed sulfur content in marine exhaust gassed to 0.5% m/m (mass by mass) at open oceans. The upper limit for sulfur content in the marine exhaust gas at coastal seas continues to be at a maximum of 0.1% m/m.

Towards a Sustainable Shipping Industry

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is an international standard-setting authority under the United Nations (UN), which enhances security, safety, and environmental performance, within the global shipping industry by adopting and enforcing regulatory frameworks.

The IMO 2020 regulation heavily reduces the allowed sulfur content in marine exhaust gasses from the previously allowed 3.5% m/m (mass by mass) to a new maximum of 0.5%. Thus, marine fuel is not subject to the new regulation. Instead, the exhaust gas, which must correspond to burning fuel, ensures that the mass by mass is equivalent to or lower than 0.5% m/m.

The changes apply globally, and it applies to all sizes of ships. The IMO 2020 will not affect the Emission Control Areas (ECA). ECA includes sensitive waters such as the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, most of the U.S, including the Caribbean and Canada. In these areas, the upper limit for sulfur content in marine exhaust gas remains at a maximum of 0.1% m/m.

Marine Deposition Wash Water And Exhaust Emissions Liqtech
Ship smokestack and scrubber wash water emissions - What the scrubber and water treatment removes.

Expects Significant Health and Environmental Improvements

The change aims to lower SOx emissions to drive a more sustainable shipping industry. The IMO estimates this regulation to deliver a 77% SOx reduction before 2025. This is an amount of approximately 8.5 million metric tonnes of SOx. The primary purpose is the decrease the harmful impact shipping has on human health by lowering air pollution from SOx emissions. This will significantly benefit the people living in the coastal areas of Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America. The regulation expects to deliver significant health improvements, such as reductions in strokes, asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. The IMO estimates the new IMO 2020 sulfur cap can prevent more than 570,000 premature deaths within 2025.

Furthermore, the new regulation also benefits ecosystems, wildlife, infrastructure, and buildings to help prevent acid rain and fight ocean acidification. Acid rain is rain, snow, hail, fog, or dusk, which has an acidic pH. Acidic rain can reach a pH of 4 and results from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, which react with water molecules in the atmosphere and generate acids. Unpolluted rain also has an acidic pH due to reactions between carbon dioxide and water molecules in the atmosphere, which produces a weak form of carbonic acid. Still, unpolluted rain will not reach a pH of less than approximately 5.7. Acid rain has detrimental effects on forests, soils, and freshwaters, harms and kills insects and aquatic species, especially shellfish and corals, causes corrosion of steel structures such as bridges and makes buildings decay much faster.

Implementation Guidelines

The IMO released some IMO 2020 implementation guidelines after its 74th Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) for a coherent and successful implementation of the sulfur limits. Here, it is clarified that every country that has ratified MARPOL and its Annex VI is responsible for enforcing and monitoring the vessels within its territorial waters. Moreover, the nations must report non-compliance to the relevant flag state, secure that compliant low-sulfur content fuel can be purchased within their jurisdiction, and implement shore-based facilities for scrubber waste discharge.

To comply with the IMO 2020 sulfur cap, ships may use different fuels with lower or zero sulfur – for example, liquefied natural gas, or biofuels. However, on board the ship, mixture and co-mingling or differing fuels are not recommended. Therefore, shipowners should refer to the relevant International Standardization Organization (ISO) standards (ISO 8217 and ISO/PAS 23263:2019). Shipowners are responsible for testing compatibility, stability, and other relevant characteristics of compliant fuels to be used. Furthermore, compliance can be gained by installing exhaust gas cleaning systems, known as scrubbers. The scrubbers limit air pollutants and are accepted if flag States approve as an alternative means to meet the sulfur limit requirement. A scrubber removes sulfur oxides from the ship’s engine and boiler exhaust gases, enabling ships with installed scrubbers to continue to use HFO in accordance with IMO 2020 sulfur cap.

If a vessel does not comply with the IMO sulfur regulations, severe sanctions are involved. Depending on the jurisdictions, the sanctions for violating the IMO 2020 sulfur cap can be debunking all non-compliant fuel oil, heavy fines, or imprisonment of the vessel’s caption. A vessel’s oil tank is designed to receive fuel oil, not pump it out. Therefore, debunking oil from a vessel is highly complicated and time-consuming.

How Do I Comply With the IMO 2020 Sulfur Cap
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