Mediterranean countries unite to limit sulfur emissions

One of the greatest environmental threats from shipping is sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions, which pollute both air and water. Sulfur emissions have serious consequences for marine species. They increase acid fallout and reduce the ocean’s alkalinity, while also limiting its ability to absorb CO2. For humans and terrestrial animals, SOx emissions can diminish air quality and cause major health issues, including increased incidence of respiratory and cardiac diseases.

Since 1973, the MARPOL[1] Convention has been steadily modified to reduce acceptable levels of sulfur in marine fuel. Starting at more than 7%, sulfur content is now limited to 0.5%, with some marine stakeholders going even further. Four regions – the northern United States, the North Sea, the Caribbean and the Baltic Sea – are designated Sulfur Emission Control Areas (SECA). This means that ships traveling through these zones may not consume fuel containing more than 0.1% sulfur.

The Mediterranean becomes world’s next SECA

In December 2019, a coalition of Mediterranean states, including France, Italy, Greece, Türkiye, Algeria and Egypt, met at the Barcelona Convention. Their goal was to sign a general agreement on the creation of a new SECA, and commit to undergoing relevant environmental studies.

Two years later, these same signatories sent a draft submission to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), to be presented in 2022. If accepted, the IMO will authorize the creation of ECAMED, a new SECA protecting Mediterranean waters, with legislation that could enter into force in 2025.


Director for Regulatory and Institutional Affairs

Bureau Veritas Marine & Offshore

Bureau Veritas has a long history of helping shipowners understand new regulations, achieve compliance and improve sustainability. When clients aim to sail in SECAs, we help them identify the best emission-reduction option, be it switching to alternative fuels or integrating scrubbers onboard. Our experts combine technical knowledge and empathy, putting themselves in shipowners’ shoes to truly understand their needs and goals.

The advantages of ECAMED

Creating ECAMED will have multiple environmental and social benefits, including a cleaner maritime ecosystem and reduced negative health outcomes for people and animals.

First, in terms of limiting emissions, there is a marked difference between 0.5% and 0.1% sulfur content in marine fuel. SOx emissions in the Mediterranean have already dropped by more than 600,000 metric tons since 2020, following the introduction worldwide by IMO of the Global Sulphur Cap. For ships using only 0.1% sulfur fuel, emissions fell by a further 118,000 metric tons.

Second, ECAMED will help improve overall air quality throughout the Mediterranean basin. According to the French National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks (INERIS), the region stands to reap significant economic and social benefits. These include a monetary health gain of €8-14 billion euros annually, doubling the gains of 2020’s Global Sulphur Cap. The area will notably improve the health and protect the populations of Algeria, Egypt, Italy, Greece and Türkiye.

Looking forward, the same Mediterranean states have agreed to pursue measures for nitrous oxide (NOx) restrictions, as per the Barcelona Convention. This would minimize acceptable NOx emissions in the area, adding the Mediterranean to the list of global Nitrogen Emission Control Areas (NECA).

How vessel owners can achieve compliance

All ships operating in SECAs must use alternative fuels or Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems (EGCS) – scrubbers – to reduce SOx emissions. Among alternative fuels, low-carbon liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a strong choice supported by extensive global infrastructure. For EGCS, both open-loop and closed-loop scrubbers can be integrated onboard to remove SOx from ship exhaust. However, open-loop scrubbers have been banned in coastal waters by various flag administrations, including France and Portugal, as they release contaminated water into the ocean.

Vessels traveling through ECAMED will also undergo a thorough inspection of their onboard fuel, to be performed by the relevant flag state.

Enforcing new regulations in ECAMED

While Environmentally Controlled Areas (ECA) of all kinds are created by the IMO, these 200-mile regions are policed by individual countries. Port State Control for each flag and coastal state has the authority to inspect vessels and apply sanctions to non-compliant ships. These may include hefty fines, ship detention or bans from local ports.

Flag states may grant certain exemptions to ships undergoing technological tests or facing safety issues. However, in equal measure, flag states can refuse to accept emission-reducing solutions they deem insufficiently environmentally friendly.

How Bureau Veritas supports shipowners

As environmental regulations evolve, Bureau Veritas is ready to help shipowners understand requirements and achieve compliance. Our experts recognize that applying new regulations to ships is a specialized process, with variations dependent on vessel age, type, location and routes traveled.

For ships operating regularly in SECAs, we offer in-depth knowledge of retrofitting vessels for scrubbers, both closed-loop and open-loop. Vessels sailing intermittently through SECAs may find switching to low-carbon fuels like LNG a better solution. For both newbuilds and in-service ships, Bureau Veritas offers longstanding technical, safety and regulatory expertise for integrating LNG onboard.

In addition, as a recognized classification society, Bureau Veritas can help ensure that ship managers comply with SECA regulations. Our experts are available to provide assistance and guide shipowners worldwide.

[1] The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships