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The EU Maritime Profile - environment

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The EU aims to be climate-neutral by 2050, meaning that it will be an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. This objective is at the heart of the European Green Deal and in line with the EU’s commitment to global climate action under the Paris Agreement.

Today, shipping is one of the modes of transport with the lowest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per distance and weight carried. Despite this, pollution derived from shipping shipping activities has profound implications for air and water quality, and marine and estuarine biodiversity. Different ship types, operational profiles, cargoes carried, fuels consumed, materials used, arrangements, and control systems make vessels highly complex systems also from an environmental point of view.

This section currently gives data on CO2 emissions from ships in the EU, and the inspections of ships to check if low sulphur fuels are being used. It also shows statistics on the compliance with sulphur requirements per region, and low emissions fuels and alternative technologies.

CO2 emissions from ships in the EU

Container ships have the largest share of CO2 emissions, accounting for around one third of the total, followed by oil tankers (14%). Bulk carriers even though represent one third of the total number of ships considered, account for 12% of CO2 emissions. Taken together, passenger and roll-on, roll-off passenger (Ro-pax) ships also account for a substantial share of the total CO2 emissions.

Monitoring pollution events

Potential pollution events in the EU are monitored by CleanSeaNet, the European satellite-based oil spill monitoring and vessel detection service developed and operated by EMSA. The service now delivers over 7 000 images from six satellites per year, with over 3 million km² monitored every day.

Upon receiving the alert report from CleanSeaNet, the relevant national authority decides how to respond, which include sending an aircraft or patrol vessel to verify the detection and potentially obtaining confirmation that an illegal discharge is taking place.

Inspections on board ships to check the use of low sulphur fuels

SO2 is a pollutant emitted by the combustion of marine fuel that can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and can cause irritation of the eyes. It also contributes to acid deposition, which, in turn, can lead to potential changes in soil and water quality of coastal and port areas.

To reduce SO2 emissions from ships, the sulphur content of marine fuels has been regulated in the EU since 1999 and continuously reduced since then.

Monitoring is key for the effective and timely implementation of the various sets of laws, rules and standards. To aid EU Member States in their efforts to ensure that sulphur emissions from ships are below the required limits, EMSA developed a platform, THETIS-EU, to record and exchange the results of individual inspections performed by Member States on board ships calling at their ports.

Since 1 January 2015, when the system became operational, the results of over 60 000 specific inspections on ships (an average of 700-900 per month) have been recorded in THETIS-EU.

Compliance with sulphur requirements per region

EU and international legislation already sets out strict limits on the sulphur content in fuels, but those limits are even more restrictive in Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECAs). These are sea areas created by the International Maritime Organization under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), where limits are applied to reduce sulphur oxide (SOx) emissions.

There are currently two SECAs in the EU: the Baltic Sea area and the North Sea area. Since the SECAs were introduced, SOx emissions have largely decreased in the North and Baltic Sea zones. Inspections carried out clearly demonstrate that the sulphur content in fuel samples was compliant at rates above 98%.

Low-emission fuels and alternative technologies

Maritime transport has traditionally relied on the use of conventional fossil fuels. Now, however, regulatory developments aiming to reduce air emissions, including air pollutants, and the need to contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, have led to more interest in the use of low-sulphur or -emission technologies, alternative or low-carbon fuels and other sustainable fuel and energy-efficient technologies.

Several alternative fuels and energy technologies have the potential to reduce the maritime transport sector’s impact on the environment, in terms of air emissions (both greenhouse gas and air pollution).

Batteries are beginning to be used more and more to complement heavy-duty onboard ship operations like propulsion and providing energy to different auxiliary systems. The potential environmental benefit of battery-equipped vessels is very high, and may lead to the removal of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxide and particulate matter emissions from ships. The number of battery-equipped ships trading in the EU is slowly but steadily increasing:

On-shore power (OPS) can serve as a clean power supply for maritime transport, thus drastically reducing carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxide and particulate matter emissions while at berth. However, the availability of “clean/green” electricity installations within ports, as well as the OPS readiness of ships is under progress.

A number of EU and EEA ports are now equipped with onshore power supplies for ships to use while at berth.

The total number of  berths varies between ports, with some having more than one berth:

The use of liquified natural gas (LNG) as fuel substantially reduces air pollutants such as sulphur oxides and particulate matter, and to a certain extent can also contribute to greenhouse gas reduction under certain conditions. However, under certain conditions, methane leakage associated with LNG usage can conversely result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Exhaust gas cleaning systems (EGCSs), commonly referred to as ‘scrubbers’, are designed to remove sulphur oxide matter from the exhaust gases resulting from the combustion processes on board ships. EGCSs use water to remove the pollutants, resulting in overboard discharges to the marine environment. There is work at international level on the evaluation and harmonisation of rules and guidance on the discharge of water from EGCS into the aquatic environment, including conditions and areas.