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An illuminem summary: Sulfur Out, Scrubbers In

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By illuminem

· 5 min read

When the conversation is about protecting the environment, the mind goes immediately to carbon emissions. No one thinks about Sulphur dioxide (SO2). Yet, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) new regulations do just that.

New bad boy in town: SO2

SO2 is responsible for causing environmental and human health problems like acid rain and lung disease. Sensibly, the IMO is seeking to reduce SO2 emissions in the atmosphere, particularly as the shipping industry has been increasing in its emissions. A 2013 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that between 2000 and 2013, as the amount of cargo loaded worldwide rose 40 percent, SO2 emissions increased nearly 40 percent too.

IMO 2020

Enacted on January 1, 2020, the IMO’s landmark initiative, referred to as IMO 2020, builds on various governments’ efforts since the 1970s to reduce air pollution, particularly in the U.S. Amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990 significantly decreased SO2 emissions from electric power plants and other industrial sources. The measures were so successful that between 1980 and 2018, average SO2 concentrations in the U.S. decreased 91 percent.

Ships are responsible for about 3% of global air pollution. To counter it, IMO does coordinate internationally which is a necessity for its success. Although it is toothless without the presence of a global policeman to enforce regulations on the shipping industry.

A costly endeavor

While the reduction in SO2 emissions into the atmosphere sounds like Christmas to living beings, it is not so for the shipping industry. In fact, it is quite costly for them to comply to the strict targets. A 2016 OECD report estimated that the container shipping industry may have to spend between $5 billion and $30 billion to get in line. The wide range is due to uncertainties regarding just how much very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO) will cost and whether it will even be available in adequate amounts.

While IMO 2020 came into effect only a few weeks ago, the average cost of VLSFO has already risen. In Singapore, the world’s largest bunkering hub, it spiked from approximately $550 per metric ton in December 2019 to nearly $750 once the new year began. By mid-January, the spread between VLSFO and conventional heavy fuel oil (HFO) had reached $300/ton and was trending higher. For 8,000-TEU vessels relying on VLSFO, this can represent $23,000 in additional daily costs.

Hang on, there is an alternative

There is an alternative to VLSFO Scrubbers. On a ship, scrubbers use either sea or freshwater to remove exhaust gases before either discharging the wash-water back into the ocean with open-loop systems or, in closed-loop systems, treating the wash-water with caustic soda for discharge on land or far at sea. Typically, scrubbers need to be retrofitted onto ships with installations being expensive and occasionally technically challenging, especially when done at sea.

Holistic demand

But the benefit seems to outweigh the cost. With high VLSFO costs, ship owners are gaining interest in scrubber technology. Even engineering firms are engaged in designing a diverse new range of scrubbers to meet industry demands. CR Ocean Engineering, says that, to ensure it meets different installation needs, it’s introduced side-entry, U-shaped, and square scrubber designs. The firm is now working on over 150 projects on a range of vessels. Moreover, even installation companies are picking up on business due to these developments.

An additional benefit of scrubbers is that they can eliminate up to 60 percent of black carbon and a significant amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Contrasting opinions

As any proper debate would, there are contrasting thoughts on the use of open-loop scrubbers in the industry. Some are adamant that the environment is not at risk since they meet the various regulations at present. While others are altogether skeptical whether open-loop scrubbers can meet the regulations at all.

In November 2019, for instance, the Malaysian government moved to ban the use of open-loop scrubbers in its waters, requiring instead that vessels use closed-loop systems or compliant fuels. Even in waters where open-loop scrubbers are permitted, many regulations still need to be met. But the constant innovation in the technology of designing scrubbers seems to be helping.

The way forward

In any case, to succeed in fulfilling the targets of IMO 2020 for a healthy environment, all stakeholders need to cooperate - from international regulatory bodies and governments to the industry.

Government policies at times are mercurial due to cyclical change of leaderships. However, it does bring to the industry what the invisible hand of a free market does not – a push for the industry to act a certain way. In this case, to think and act greener. Clean Marine, suppliers of Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems for the marine industry, sees IMO 2020 as a chance to solve even bigger environmental issues.

“Government policies play an important role of incentivizing investments into R&D, green technologies and future-proofing in a way that a self-regulated industry cannot do on its own,” Clean Marine’s Camilla Knappskog concludes. “We see the SOx and NOx focus of IMO 2020 to be the start of a journey that shall address climate challenges and transform shipping into a truly green and sustainable industry.”

Nobody has a crystal ball, but regulatory efforts from bodies like the IMO that push the industry to integrate future-proofing into decision-making and design not only help bottom lines, they also help protect the oceans for generations to come.

The original article is published in the Maritime Executive Magazine - click here to read the full article. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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