A global regulation that was meant to substantially reduce harmful sulphur oxide (SOx) emissions from ships came into effect in January of 2020. Introduced by the International Maritime Organization, IMO 2020 intended to clean up the maritime industry has had reduced benefits due to the bigger impact to the industry from Covid-19.
The regulation required shippers to convert to low-sulfur fuel alternatives instead of the existing, dirty product they’d used for decades. Starting January 1, 2020 the global upper limit on the sulphur content of ships' fuel oil was reduced to 0.50% (from 3.50%) for all ships operating outside certain designated Emission Control Areas, where the limit is already 0.10%. Fears about the performance, and supply turned out to be unfounded. Vessels switched, the clean product was available and worked, and the industry eliminated a substantial part of its sulfur-dioxide emissions.
“The fears of IMO have not been realized,” said Mark Williams, a senior oil analyst covering refined-fuel markets at Wood Mackenzie Ltd. “Covid’s blown most of it out of the water.”
Although the regulation was intended to help reduce pollution and address environmental concerns by slashing the amount of sulfur in ship fuel, oil refiners and vessel operators did not anticipate the unprecedented disruption and reduced oil demand that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s too early to calculate the benefits the switch to the new lower-sulfur fuel has contributed towards human health. Estimates are a drop of at least 80% in the sulfur content of marine fuel, a significant decline in sulfur-dioxide emissions, from roughly 15 million tons a year to just 3 million, according to FOBAS, a fuel-testing firm.