If you think your New Year’s resolution to stop drinking what’s bad for you is impressive, try being one of the 60,000 oceangoing ships. As of January 1, all marine vessels must drastically cut how much sulfur they pump into the air. The new regulation marks one of the first truly global initiatives to clean up planet Earth, and it just might wreak a bit of havoc on the world’s economy along the way.
The rule, officially dubbed MARPOL Annex VI, regulation 14, comes from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency. Better known as IMO 2020 and agreed to by every nation that plays a serious role in global shipping, it dictates that ships either install pollution-control equipment or use fuel whose sulfur content is no more than 0.5 percent by weight, down from the current 3.5 percent limit.
“This global switch is unprecedented,” says Iain Mowat, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie who forecasts petroleum demand.
Where the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gases prods countries to promise to make changes, IMO 2020 is the rare global standard that everybody’s supposed to follow. And it’s set to have a major impact. By value, more than 70 percent of global trade makes part of its journey by ship. (By volume, it’s over 80 percent.) The world’s armada accounts for 4 percent of global oil demand, which may not seem like a lot if you don’t know that it represents 3.3 million daily barrels of a particularly gnarly oil product.
Most ships, especially the big ones that do the heavy hauling, burn what’s called high-sulfur fuel oil, or bunker fuel. Think of the oil that comes out of the ground like a steer: The nicest cuts are carved into filet mignon and ribeyes. The tougher parts become brisket and hamburgers. All the bits nobody would buy on their own are ground and mashed into hot dogs. When crude oil is distilled, the lightest parts to boil off are butane and propane, followed by gasoline. In the middle of the range, you get jet fuel and kerosene. Down at the bottom are the residual fuels—the stuff that sticks around after everything else has boiled off. That’s where you’ll find dark, viscous bunker fuel. The only things below it are carbon black—a common ingredient in tires—and asphalt.
Bunker fuel is also known as high-sulfur fuel oil because it contains up to 3,500 times as much sulfur as the diesel you put in your Volkswagen, according to researchers at Columbia University. And while sulfur’s not a greenhouse gas, it is quite horrible. It triggers acid rain, which contributes to ocean acidification. University of Washington researchers have found that ship exhaust intensifies thunderstorms, so shipping lanes get extra lightning. (That’s right, humans have invented yet another way to piss off Zeus.) Sulfur emissions cause respiratory problems and lung disease in humans, especially those who live near ports. It’s such a problem, the IMO estimates the new sulfur-curtailing rule will prevent more than 570,000 premature deaths in the next five years.
Somewhat remarkably for a United Nations initiative whose enforcement is left to individual nations, analysts predict that more than 90 percent of ships will comply. Shipping is global, but the industry’s decisionmaking power is concentrated among relatively few large shipping companies, oil refiners, and major ports. Those key players have all said they’ll follow the UN’s marching orders.