Switch, scrub, or just cheat?

 In 2020, new regulation will force the shipping industry to nearly eliminate sulphur from its fuel. This will help improve air quality and many shipping lines are supportive – despite the higher costs. However, they are also worried that without proper enforcement the rule will create more losers than winners. 

Switch-scrub-or-just-cheat

If shipping is the most efficient way to move goods, the industry’s smoke-belching reputation is not made up, either. Starting in 2020, it will get a big chance to improve its image with the arrival of the new global sulphur regulation.

The 2020 sulphur rule, introduced by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – the UN’s special agency that governs shipping – will slash the allowable sulphur content in the fuel of vessels sailing the open ocean to 0.5% m/m from the current 3.5% m/m limit.

Maersk and other shipping lines have voiced support for the rule since it was agreed back in 2008. There is just one major problem: No one knows how to enforce it yet.

“For the rule to work and reduce sulphur emissions, everyone needs to abide by it and that means there needs to be a way of policing the emissions of all vessels on the open sea And no one has that solution yet,” says Simon Bergulf, Regulatory Affairs Director at A.P. Moller – Maersk.

The incentive to cheat

The shipping industry already faces strict sulphur emission rules in certain coastal zones, the so-called Emission Control Areas (ECA), which include the coasts of the United States, and parts of Europe and Asia. Policing these defined areas along the coasts is not easy, but the open sea is a far bigger challenge.

“In coastal areas around states such as Denmark, we can use drones and so-called sniffers to identify cheaters by analysing the ships’ chimney smoke, but there are no solutions yet for surveilling the open sea” says Annette Stube, Head of Sustainability at A.P. Moller – Maersk.

Simon Bergulf
“For the rule to work and reduce sulphur emissions, everyone needs to abide by it and that means there needs to be a way of policing the emissions of all vessels on the open sea. And no one has that solution yet,” says Simon Bergulf, Regulatory Affairs Director at A.P. Moller – Maersk.

How to comply? Three options

The shipping industry has three options for compliance with the 2020 global sulphur limit of 0.5%:

  • Buy more expensive fuel with lower sulphur content
  • Change the fuel type entirely
  • Invest in filters, also known as “scrubbers” that remove the sulphur particles from the vessel engine’s exhaust

Based on tests, Maersk believes the low sulphur fuel is the better option for the industry. Switching to another fuel is a possibility for some vessel types with short-sea voyages, but because of the cost associated with retrofitting and supply constraints, it is not a viable solution for a fleet like Maersk Line’s at this point. Scrubbers entail installation, running and maintenance costs that make them less attractive than the low sulphur fuel and, according to tests Maersk Line has carried out, they also reduce fuel efficiency by as much as 2%.

“And since the rule will increase fuel costs significantly for companies like Maersk that comply, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the incentives to cheat will be big and the savings cheaters could reap would provide a considerable competitive advantage,” says Stube.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the cleaner fuel will cost the container shipping industry an extra USD 5 – 30 billion, annually. 

Sharing responsibility and technology

One possible solution to the enforcement challenge was introduced as an amendment to the rule in July at a meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee. The amendment stipulates that ships cannot legally buy fuel with a sulphur content higher than the 0.5% limit unless they are fitted with a scrubber or some other technology that has been approved for exhaust gas cleaning. 

“What that does is broaden the responsibility for compliance and risk of being caught and punished to the suppliers of the fuel, not just the shipping lines that are buying it. It’s a step in the right direction,” says Bergulf.

In coastal areas around states such as Denmark, we can use drones and so-called sniffers to identify cheaters by analysing the ships’ chimney smoke, but there are no solutions yet for surveilling the open sea.

Annette Stube

Annette Stube, Head of Sustainability at A.P. Moller – Maersk

In addition to collaborating with the IMO and other shipping authorities on regulation, Maersk is actively looking for technology solutions that may help with enforcement.

One example is the “Sox Challenge,” held in June at the Danish Technical University and sponsored by Maersk and several other companies, where students competed to come up with innovative solutions to the enforcement challenge. Ideas included a tamper resistant black box mounted on ships to collect emission data, and mounting sensors on all ships to crowd-source data as ships pass each other.

“Shipping is the most efficient mode of transporting goods, but there is more for us to do,” says Annette Stube. “Our industry must continue to do its part and this rule has significant potential. With effective enforcement, it can be a positive development in the reduction of harmful sulphur particles by ensuring everyone is playing by the same rules.”