North Sea sulphur failure "self inflicted"

European dissension undermined push for regional limit on sulphur in marine fuels

European countries spoiled their own chances of achieving special sulphur control status for the North Sea at an international conference which ended today, ENDS Daily has learned from a well-placed source.

A new annex to the Marpol convention on pollution from shipping was signed today in London, following two weeks of negotiations under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). For the first time, global rules will exist for shipping on the operation of waste incinerators, emissions of ozone-depleting substances, ship engine emissions of nitrogen oxides and other aspects.

Most controversial of the substantive issues were proposals for a global limit on marine fuel sulphur levels, and separate proposals by various countries to establish stricter regional standards (ENDS Daily 18 September). In the event, a global cap of 4.5% sulphur was passed - barely less than the existing ISO standard of 5%. A special control area in which marine fuel sulphur levels are restricted to 1.5% was agreed for the Baltic, but rejected for the North Sea (ENDS Daily 25 September).

Putting on a brave face, IMO Secretary General William O'Neil said today that agreement meant that shipping was taking a "global lead" on environment. "We feel we've achieved quite a bit," he told reporters.

European delegations involved in the negotiations agree that it was an achievement to get the annex through at all, but are less happy with the outcome, especially on sulphur controls. "The greatest disappointment is that the IMO is lagging behind too much on the means of solving health and environmental problems," the Norwegian Marine Directorate said in a press statement today. "It's hard to be elated," one delegate told ENDS Daily.

Though the major battles over sulphur limits were fought between "flag states" in the developing world and developed countries, internal dissension in the European camp contributed significantly to the failure of the North Sea sulphur control area, a senior and well-informed national delegate has told ENDS Daily. The North Sea states "didn't have a game plan on how to get approval" for the plan, he said. "We didn't see...a concerted strategy."

"Part of the problem was that at the eleventh hour France pulled out. But there were other problems too," he said. One of these emerged late on in the negotiations, when the UK also withdrew from the group. The UK delegation is understood to have been dismayed when it became clear that wording in a resolution intended to enable any future North Sea sulphur control area to be extended westwards into the Atlantic had been sacrificed in order to reach a compromise with developing countries.

Follow Up:
International Maritime Organisation, tel: +44 171 417 8814.

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