What does IMO 2020 pollution standards mean for international shipping?

December 2, 2019 – In a recent article authored by David McCullough and Nicholas Hillman, of the New York office of Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP, “Effective January 1, 2020, Annex VI of MARPOL, which is the international treaty governing pollution on the high seas, will mandate a significant decrease in sulfur emissions from vessels—reducing the current permitted level of 35,000 ppm to 5,000 ppm.

Blue ocean container vessel

Compliance with this new standard will primarily be achieved through the burning of low-sulfur fuel, although compliance choices include other methods, like the use of scrubbers and liquid natural gas (“LNG”) as fuel. The primary responsible party in the freight market will be the vessel owner or operator.

It is estimated that 10 – 20 percent of vessels after January 1, 2020, simply will not comply with the new IMO 2020 sulfur standard. Furthermore, because there is no industry standard specification for bunker fuel, there is an increased risk of fuel quality issues that lead to suboptimal performance and engine damage, which may give rise to inadvertent non-compliance. As a result, the industry should expect significant enforcement efforts of this new standard.

While the IMO does not have a global enforcement body, IMO member states’ laws are enforced by bodies such as the US Coast Guard and US Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”). Port states can enforce compliance within their coastal waters while flag states may enforce the standard on vessels flagged in their countries. Both port states and flag states have the authority to arrest vessels, and issue fines, penalties and even prison sentences.

The detention of vessels and its owners or operators for non-compliance can also lead to delays in the shipment of goods and present significant obstacles and other logistical issues in getting a vessel released from US authorities.”

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