A Global Sulphur Cap reducing the maximum sulphur content in the fuel used by ships has been effective since the 1st of January 2020. This decision is known as ‘IMO 2020' and is applicable to all ships, besides those operating within Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA) where the regulations are more stringent. ‘IMO 2020' is aimed at reducing sulphur oxide emissions, therefore bringing about various benefits to the environment and humans.

Sulphur oxide is one of the many harmful biproducts of burning marine fuel. Said combustion emits significant amounts of sulphur oxide which causes a multitude of harmful effects to both humans and the environment alike and the over emission of this hazardous content must be granted utmost attention. This is even more so in light of the fact that ships, which are major emitters of sulphur oxides, play a central role in the global trade industry as approximately 90% of all trade is carried out by sea.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is the leading convention governing and handling the reduction and prevention of pollution of marine environments by ships. ‘IMO 2020' falls under MARPOL which in turn falls under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). After a rigorous review on the availability of compliant low-sulphur fuel, the IMO decided to implement the ‘IMO 2020 global cap' which requires all ships to use marine fuel which has a sulphur content of 0.5% or less.

This reduction is significant, as the previous threshold of sulphur content was 3.5%. This reduction is applicable everywhere except in SECAs, including the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the US Caribbean and in areas of North America, where the maximum sulphur limit is 0.1%. The benefits which stringent sulphur emission regulations have brought to the aforementioned SECAs are substantial. It is held that the sulphur oxide concentrations around SECAs have almost halved, and ‘IMO 2020' is expected to reap similar benefits all over the world. In fact, ‘IMO 2020' is expected to reduce sulphur oxide emissions by over 75%.

This expected decrease in sulphur oxide emissions shall subsequently result in the reduction of various respiratory, pulmonary, and cardiovascular problems, together with ocean acidification and acid rain effecting crops, forests and aquatic species. In addition, ‘IMO 2020' will also compel ships to use higher quality fuel which has a lower sulphur content. Ultimately, this will lead to coastal areas and ports having substantially cleaner air.

On the national front, information relating to the ‘IMO 2020' can be found in Port Notice No. 6 of 2019 released by Transport Malta, together with the subsidiary legislation ‘Quality of Fuel Regulations' (S.L. 545.18) which subsidiary legislation is to regulate the quality of fuel in Malta and directly transpose a number of EU Directives on the subject. Notably, these regulations shall apply until 2025 at which point stricter regulations relating to sulphur emissions shall very likely be implemented within the Mediterranean Sea.

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