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The 0.5% sulphur cap instated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 2020 could prevent around 150,000 premature deaths a year, and 7.6 million cases of childhood asthma, according to public health experts.

Heavy fuel oil used by container ships is a big source of global air pollution. It contains sulphur that produces noxious gases and particulates that are harmful to humans, especially along busy shipping lanes. 70% of shipping emissions occur within 250 miles of land.

This results in about 400,000 premature deaths a year due to lung cancer or cardiovascular disease, and 14 million asthma cases among children, according to researchers.

There are already sulphur caps in place in parts of Europe and North America that have been deemed Emission Control Areas, requiring cargo ships to use low sulphur fuels when approaching the coastline. China also has some low-emission zones at a dozen of its major ports. However, ships tend to switch back to much cheaper bunker fuel as soon as they leave these zones.

70% of shipping emissions occur within 250 miles of land
Credit: Will Truettner

Shipping companies face rising costs, big investments and tight margins however they choose to break from fossil fuels ahead of the sulphur cap. Alternatives include marine gas oil, which is more expensive to produce, and scrubber systems, which have a large upfront cost.

Liquefied natural gas is the preferred solution for some, but the facilities that produce it are currently in limited supply.

In 2020, global shipping fuel costs could rise by an estimated $24 billion globally—an increase of 25%. The IMO itself will not be able to enforce compliance with the sulphur cap, relying on state authorities, but it has proposed heavy fines and bans for companies who do not comply.

Source: Yale Environment 360

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