Since maritime transport has a direct impact on air quality in many European coastal cities and exhaust gases from ships are a significant source of air pollution, from 2012 the European Union has taken firm action to reduce the sulphur content of marine fuels through the so-called Sulphur Directive. Sulphur Oxide (SOx) emissions from ships’ combustion engines, indeed, cause acid rain and generate fine dust that can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as reduced life expectancy.

Revised in 2016, the Directive incorporated into EU law the new standards set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which predetermined 2020 as entry-into-force date of the global 0.5% sulphur cap. Furthermore, in some very fragile ecosystems such as the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, designated as “Sulphur Oxides Emissions Control Areas” (SECAs), the maximum sulphur content has been reduced to 0.10%, already in 2015, which more than halved sulphur dioxide concentrations bringing health benefits to people in coastal regions and ports with a minimal overall economic impact on the sector.

More generally, the EU has strived for an active role in tackling maritime emissions both at home and globally. For example, it played an instrumental role in brokering and securing a deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by at least 50% by 2050. Moreover, in order to tackle plastic pollutionwithin our oceans, the European Union adopted new rules on port reception facilities, making sure that waste generated on-board ships or fished at sea is collected and treated in ports.

Based on the successful implementation of the Emission Control Area (ECA) limits, the introduction of the global sulphur limit is expected to bring similar results, with the recent European Green Deal, presented by the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen in December 2019, setting out further action to make shipping more sustainable such as the extension of the European emissions trading to the maritime sector.