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 emissions from ships in the EU in relation to: CO2, SOx, and NOx emissions; and underwater Radiated Noise (URN). It also shows statistics on: monitoring of pollution events in the EU; inspections of ships to check if low sulphur fuels are being used; on the compliance with sulphur requirements per region; and low emissions fuels and alternative technologies.

MRV Reported CO2 emissions from ships in the EU

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at the ship’s stack are directly related to the oxidation process of the carbon chains present in the fuels and used on board for combustion. This is defined as the tank to wake (TtW) emissions. However, on a life cycle analysis basis, the overall CO2 emissions also depend on the well to tank (WtT) part, i.e. the CO2 emissions resulting from – inter-alia – the sourcing, production and distribution of the fuels.  The monitoring, reporting and verification Regulation (EU) 2015/757 is the EU instrument that introduced a European system for the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of CO2 emissions from shipping. Its aim is to increase transparency about emissions produced from the shipping sector and to create an incentive to reduce them. Since 1st January 2018, shipowners are required to monitor and report CO2 emissions from ships. The monitoring applies to all seagoing ships above 5,000 GT which call or depart from an EU port. Despite limiting the monitoring requirements to large ships, the Regulation covers around 90% of all CO2 emissions, whilst only including around 55% of all ships calling into EEA ports.

Overall CO2 emissions from models

The modelled data on emissions from ships reported below, represents estimates of CO2 emissions for all shipping activity, without any restriction of GT. In addition the model data also accounts for ships movements for waters around the EU. Therefore, this dataset is not to be compared directly with the MRV data (i.e. 145 CO2 million tons in 2018, 146 CO2 million tons in 2019 and 120 million tons in 2020 at EU level), as differences are to be expected in the amounts reported under the MRV system and the model emissions underneath.

CO2 emissions are produced when a carbon-based fuel oxidizes in the combustion chamber of a ship engine. Emissions are therefore directly related to the consumption of these fossil fuels and the volume of maritime traffic. Notwithstanding seasonal fluctuations, some of which are artificially amplified due to the model*,  the overall totals trend at European level sees a slight gradual increase in CO2 emissions until 2020, the year of  the COVID pandemic.

* Ship Traffic Emission Assessment Model (STEAM), Finnish Meteorological Institute

Data: This data was generated with STEAM ship emission model. The data reports the monthly sums of ship emitted pollution to air/water.  

SOx Emissions

The generation of Sulphur Oxides (SOx) from ships are heavily dependent on the sulphur content of the fuels used on board for combustion. During the combustion in the ship’s engines, the sulphur present in the fuel is oxidized forming SOx. The higher the sulphur content the higher the resulting SOx, hence the curbing of Sulphur Oxides from shipping is made through limiting the sulphur content of marine fuels. The Sulphur Directive 2016/802 is the only EU instrument directly regulating the prevention of air pollution from ships. defined for emissions. Therefore, although there is no specific target on SOx reductions, this indicator can show the impact of this legislation over time in reducing emissions. This is particularly relevant as there are important milestones in the application of the rules such as the requirements to limit the sulphur content in marine fuels to 0,10% m/m while at berth introduced in July 2010, the introduction of Sulphur Emission Control Areas in the Baltic Sea and North Sea in January 2015 and the associated limit of 0,10% m/m in the sulphur content, and more recently the implementation of a global sulphur cap which entered into force in January 2020, where the limit is set to 0,50% m/m.

SOx emissions are strictly connected to the sulphur content in the fuel consumed and therefore to the volume of maritime traffic. Notwithstanding seasonal fluctuations, some of which are artificially amplified due to the model*, and despite the sharp reductions in some regions such as the Baltic and the North Sea, the overall totals trend at European level sees a slight gradual decrease in SOx emissions until 2016, and thereafter a slight but steady increase until the end of 2019, just before the introduction of further limits in the sulphur content of fuels. The impact of the new legislative measures, together with the effects of the COVID pandemic, can be clearly seen from 2020. At regional level it is interesting to note the dramatic reduction in SOx emissions in 2015 in both the Baltic Sea and North Sea, which is determined by the entry in force of the Sulphur Emission Control Areas in these regions. This sharp decrease cannot be identified for the Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea regions where there are currently no SECA areas.

* Ship Traffic Emission Assessment Model (STEAM), Finnish Meteorological Institute.

NOx Emissions

Nitrogen naturally present in atmospheric air is oxidized during the combustion process on ship’s engines resulting in Nitrogen Oxides (NOx). The higher the temperature and pressure in the combustion chamber, the higher the NOx formation. NOx emissions from ships are regulated through the international MARPOL Convention in its Annex VI. Depending on the construction date of the ship, the engine’s rating speed, and the area of operation, different NOx limits apply. The limits are applied in three Tiers (Tier I applies to engines on ships constructed on or after 1 January 2002; Tier II applies to engines on ships constructed on, or after, 1st January 2012; and Tier III applies to engines on ships constructed on or after 1st January 2016 if operating in North America or 1st January 2021 if operating in the Baltic Sea and North Sea). The most stringent of those, the Tier III applies in the NOx Emission Control Areas (NECA). In the EU, the Baltic Sea and the North Sea became NECAs on 1st January 2021. However, these requirements apply only to ships constructed after that date.

Notwithstanding seasonal fluctuations, some of which are artificially amplified due to the model*, the overall total trend at European level sees a slight increase in NOx emissions until the end of 2019. This small increase sees maximum values in 2016 and 2019 and reflected in the Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea and Baltic Sea regional values, while for the Black Sea the trend is reversed. These trends mirror the evolution of trade and maritime traffic, as during the period considered there have been no major changes in requirements. The 2019 and 2020 decrease can be attributed to the COVID pandemic and the resulting dramatic drop in ship traffic.

* Ship Traffic Emission Assessment Model (STEAM), Finnish Meteorological Institute
Data: This data was generated with STEAM ship emission model. The data reports the monthly and annual sums of ship emitted pollution to air/water.

Underwater Radiated Noise

While Underwater Radiated Noise (URN), is increasingly recognised as a significant and pervasive pollutant affecting marine ecosystems, there is no policy regulating emissions at EU level. Nevertheless, anthropogenic emissions caused by the offshore exploration industry (impulsive noise) and commercial shipping (continuous noise) are now becoming a focus area within the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). Threshold values to assess the extent to which good environmental status is achieved for underwater radiated noise are currently been developed.

The main sources of continuous underwater radiated noise from ships are caused by three main categories of noise sound: 1) Machinery noise, generated by the main and auxiliary plant on board; 2) Flow noise, due to the flow around the ship hull, and; 3) Propeller noise, which concerns all flow phenomena occurring due to the propeller. The relative importance of these categories, however, depends on many factors related to the ship type, operation profile and sea conditions. Energy noise level maps based on a parametric model at set frequencies, which includes information on ship movements and a subset of ship characteristics, offer a first level approximation of the continuous URN within European sea basins over the years. Analysing the underwater radiated noise energy at 125 Hz produced by different ship types allows us to estimate which ship type may be contributing the most to URN. Performing this analysis over time permits us to evaluate the URN trend for all the maritime traffic. From this model* data we can see that URN has increased at a steady rate in Europe since 2014. This trend is reflected for all sea basins. This intensification can be attributed to increasing traffic levels and ship sizes. The relative decrease observed in 2020 is likely caused by the impact of the pandemic on maritime traffic. Note, however, that this data is an approximation which does not consider existing ambient noise, met-ocean conditions nor any noise propagation.

* Ship Traffic Emission Assessment Model (STEAM), Finnish Meteorological Institute
Data: This data was generated with STEAM ship emission model. The data reports the monthly and annual sums of ship emitted pollution to air/water.

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.

Ship Recycling

Ship recycling registered a peak worldwide in 2021 with 742 ships flying a non-EU flag recycled and 44 ships with an EU Member State flag. The total Light Displacement Tonnage (LDT) recycled in 2021 for non-EU flagged vessel has reached 5.96 million tonnes (LDT is an indication of is the actual total weight of the vessel, defined as the weight of the ship with all its permanent equipment, excluding the weight of cargo, fuel, water, ballast, stores, passengers, crew). For EU flagged vessels the total LDT recycled reached a peak in 2020 with 286,665 tonnes representing the 5.1% of the total recycled volume in 2020.

For an increasing number of EU flagged ships, the change of flag from EU to non-EU flags, one year before the ship goes for recycling, seems to be a practice followed since 2016 and reaching a peak in 2019 where it increased more than 3 times compared to 2018.