IMO 2020 Global Sulphur Cap – milestone or millstone for maritime industry?

6th February 2020

IMO 2020 Global Sulphur Cap – milestone or millstone for maritime industry?

It has been one month since new sulphur regulations came into force for sea transportation, compelling shipowners and shipping companies alike to ensure that their vessels burn fuel containing a sulphur amount of no more than 0.50%.

Thousands of vessels are affected by the new sulphur cap and these regulations place extreme pressure on the maritime industry to comply with them. As a result, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has issued a set of guidelines assisting the maritime industry in effectively and uniformly implementing these new regulations on pollution prevention from ships.

One of the major contributors to environmental pollution on our planet comes from the sulphur emissions of vessels at sea. Roughly 90% of the world’s trading takes place by sea transportation and the most popular form of “bunker” oil used on vessels is heavy fuel oil (HFO). This type of oil contains a sulphur compound which is emitted as sulphur oxide (SOX) from the vessel after undergoing a process of combustion in the vessel’s engine. Once in the atmosphere, it combines with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which leads to the creation of acid rain. This in turn harms human health by causing respiratory diseases and destroys the environment – from poisoning our forests’ flora and fauna to acidifying our oceans and killing our aquatic species.

Since 2005 the IMO has aimed to reduce sulphur oxide (SOX) emissions by introducing regulations that limit the amount of sulphur in the fuel oil used on board a vessel. They are contained under Annex VI of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 (MARPOL 73/78).

Annex VI of MARPOL 73/78 and its amendments

Annex VI of the MARPOL 73/78 Convention contains the regulations for the prevention of air pollution from ships of which regulation 14 deals with sulphur oxides (SOX). In particular, regulation 14(1) contains the sulphur content limitation of any fuel oil used on board ships. The sulphur cap contained in this regulation has been amended twice since coming into force in 2005.

The most recent limitation came into effect on 1 January 2020 which places a global sulphur cap on “bunker” oil to 0.50% m/m (mass by mass), reducing the last 3.50% limit. This means that as of 1 January 2020, all ships will be required to burn fuel containing a sulphur amount of no more than 0.50%. This applies to fuel used in both the main and auxiliary engines as well as in the boilers.

This limitation came into force through an amendment of Annex VI of MARPOL 73/78 by Resolution MEPC.305(73) of the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) on the 26th of October 2018. Regulation 14(1) now reads:

“The sulphur content of fuel oil used or carried for use on board a ship shall not exceed 0.50% m/m.”

The amendment further establishes the requirements for vessels operating within emission control areas (ECA’s) and has amended the SOX content of fuel for these areas to 0.10% m/m. ECA’s are specific areas in which the IMO requires more stringent control over sulphur emissions. This is found under regulation 14(4), which has been amended to read:

“While a ship is operating within an emission control area, the sulphur content of fuel oil used on board that ship shall not exceed 0.10% m/m.”

Alternatives to Low Sulphur Fuel: The “Equivalents” Regulation

As an alternative to buying low sulphur fuel, shipowners have the option of installing “scrubbers” onto their vessels. A scrubber (also known as an exhaust gas cleaning system) is a form of air pollution control device that removes sulphur oxide from the vessel’s engine and boiler exhaust gases. Scrubbers have been accepted as an appropriate means to meet the sulphur limit requirement. Regulation 4 of Annex VI to MARPOL 73/78 stipulates that “equivalents” may be fitted onto vessels as long as such a fitting is as effective in reducing sulphur emissions as the required low sulphur fuel.

Non-Compliance of the New Sulphur Regulations

Vessels are prohibited from carrying non-compliant fuel oil unless they have been fitted with a scrubber (or an “equivalent” as above). The monitoring and enforcement of compliance with the new sulphur regulations rests upon the various governments and national authorities of member state parties that have ratified MARPOL and acceded to Annex VI. To aid them in doing so, the IMO has developed a set of guidelines for port state control which can be found under Resolution MEPC.321(74). Member states will be required to take the appropriate measures to ensure that vessels arriving in their coastal waters are compliant with the new sulphur regulations while, at the same time, ensuring that all possible efforts are made to avoid any vessels from being unduly delayed or detained.

Where vessels do not comply with the sulphur regulations under Annex VI of MARPOL, the port state that has established such non-compliance must take fuel samples and report the non-compliance to the flag state of the vessel. The port state may prevent the non-compliant vessel from continuing on its voyage until the said vessel takes the appropriate steps to achieve compliance. Sanctions may be imposed on the non-compliant vessel, however, a state party must take into account all relevant circumstances and evidence presented when doing so. This may include a decision to not take any steps against the non-compliant vessel.


Worldwide maritime entities have expressed their doubts concerning the potential success of the new sulphur regulations. John Gallagher from the Washington Correspondent states:

“Vessel industry representatives have been sceptical about the ability of regulators in the U.S. and around the world to keep unscrupulous shipowners from cheating by burning cheaper, noncompliant fuel – thereby gaining a significant cost advantage over those that comply.”

Rolf Habben Jansen (CEO of Hapag-Lloyd) states:

“On the one hand, this marks a milestone for the entire industry on its path to becoming more eco-friendly. On the other hand, the new cap also presents a major challenge to container shipping companies. The costs involved in converting vessels and using the new fuel will be high.”

The cost of modifying vessels and using new fuels is not the only issue that has presented itself in the new year. Further issues such as the potential shortage of HFO (containing a maximum of 0.50% sulphur content) availability have also risen to the surface. An additional question is what happens with the countries that have not ratified MARPOL along with its Annex VI? As it stands at the time of publication, countries such as China have already implemented the new 0.50% sulphur regulations within their ECA’s while South Africa has promised to pass new legislation allowing for their implementation (of which the draft Marine Pollution (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment Bill, 2019 is still to be passed).

IMO 2020 has been a colossal step for the maritime industry in striving to become an environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly industry. The new sulphur regulations have only just come into force and much remains to be done in order to ensure that they are successfully complied with.

Environmental and maritime legislation compliance can be challenging to navigate but LexisNexis has the tools to assist. Explore online solutions such as Lexis® Assure to keep clients up to date on these regulatory changes, Lexis® GRC to assist in managing the overall business impact of these and LexisNexis Practical Guidance, with practice areas including Environmental Law and Maritime Law to help you bridge the gap between understanding the law and applying it. Or choose from print and digital solutions, including LawSA and Forms and Precedents covering Shipping and Admiralty Law.

Written By Ivana Surian, Legal Content Editor at LexisNexis South Africa