Why the merchant ships can pollute the atmosphere with CO2 quite freely

Environment Council - December 2014. EU Ministers of Environment met in Brussels on 17 December 2014. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (in the forefront) also participated in the meeting. (European Council - Council of the European Union, Audiovisual service presse.audiovisuel@consilium.europa.eu)

Environment Council – December 2014. EU Ministers of Environment met in Brussels on 17 December 2014. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (in the forefront) also participated in the meeting. (European Council – Council of the European Union, Audiovisual service presse.audiovisuel@consilium.europa.eu)

Last Wednesday the European Union Environment ministers reached an agreement… essentially to not to impose rules or duties on CO2 emissions from ships. Cunningly, the relevant Council Press release said that the 28 ministers “reached an agreement on new EU-wide rules for CO2 emissions from ships”. Until today, ocean-going shipping is the only sector of transport still escaping any gas emission rules or taxation, and apparently that is not going to change in the foreseeable future. This is not an EU peculiarity, but a worldwide generosity to mercantile marine and of course to ship-owners. But can the EU Council mislead the public opinion that flagrantly? It seems that it can.

Let’s see where the Catch 22 lies. Starting from the beginning, the Council obviously deceives us all, when it refers to ‘new rules’ in relation to CO2 emissions of ocean-going ships. Simply there aren’t any. Yes, there are rules about the cleanness and the sulphur content of the fuel used by ships, when they call at EU ports. Those rules have been imposed a long time ago, because the sulphur dioxide emissions (SO2) had been unbearable for many overcrowded European seaports.

New rules? What new rules?

However, no controls or any rules of any kind whatsoever exist to this date on CO2 emissions from ships, when they reach an EU port, let alone when they relentlessly steam ahead on the lawless international waters of the congested sea routes. Not to forget that invariably all the air and land transport means are meticulously controlled and in many ways taxed according to their CO2 emissions. Probably not as much as some people might want, but surely they pay for their gas emissions. Not the ships.

There is one argument usually advanced by politicians, when the discussion reaches the burning questions of pollution and taxation, in relation to the merchant marine; they claim that ‘ships fare on international high seas and nobody can catch them there’. Unquestionably, this is a good reasoning and will be dealt here below. In any case tough merchant ships have to reach a European port, if they are to be involved in the lucrative transport activities associated to EU’s international trade of mammoth dimensions.


Not to forget that the EU was quite capable of forcing the international shipping community to build double-hulled tanker ships. Brussels simply set a date after which no single-hulled oil tankers could call at a European port. It was enough to change the picture of the oil tanker industry. This proves that if the EU had the political will, it could impose more rules on the shipping marine. Simply in the case of CO2 emissions the EU seems to lack the willingness. A series of accidents involving oil tankers and huge quantities of oil spills destroying miles of European coasts, forced the EU to act. The European beaches seem to have a strong representation in Brussels, while the stratosphere doesn’t.

Coming back to the Council’s Press Release, it gives the impression of having some kind of answers to the question of controlling the CO2 emission of ships, while they rove on international waters. It says, “From 1 January 2018, ship-owners will be obliged to monitor emissions for each ship on a per voyage and an annual basis. There are also provisions on monitoring and reporting, verification and accreditation, and compliance and publication of information as well as international cooperation”.

Generous to ship-owners

The first striking point in this text is the generous six years adjournment, given to ship-owners before the application of any measure. Secondly, there is a conspicuous absence of reference to a duty payment, related even remotely to the volume of the emissions of the vessel. This is in direct contrast with the practices followed in the cases of land and air means of transport, which are thoroughly controlled and taxed according to their CO2 emissions. Not to say anything about the heavily burdened with levies on CO2 volumes, produced in the electricity generation sector.

Now let’s challenge the other Catch 22 included in the above passage of the Council’s Press release. It says that ship-owners will be obliged to measure – obviously with devices installed on their ships – the CO2 emitted. Then it adds that there will be “provisions on monitoring and reporting, verification and accreditation, and compliance and publication of information as well as international cooperation”.

Playing with the meters

Now let’s become as cynical as ship-owners are. For one thing, all those meters and installations to measure the exhaust of the combustion can be compromised while at high seas and restored to regular when calling at a port. The Press release though provides more possibilities to neutralise the entire effort, in case that the CO2 measuring devices cannot be rigged. It says “there will be provision…on…international cooperation”.

It seems that this is the heart or probably the tomb of the entire affair. The hidden Catch 22 is that the EU will expect the Asian, African and North and South American countries to cooperate, in order the Union to introduce a reliable method to measure CO2 emissions of ships. Obviously until the entire world is ready to apply the same measures as the EU, Europe won’t do anything on its own.

Shipowners may rest reassured

It’s more than certain then that the merchant marine doesn’t run any danger of being subject to measuring or even levied for its CO2 emissions. At least not in the foreseeable future. Ship-owners may rest reassured that the EU will never subject them to this extra cost, which can burden the European exports and imports, with an unwanted and ‘senseless’ cost. If the rest of the world doesn’t want it why should we rush? Not to forget that the Commission was pressed on many occasions to make a proposal to measure or even tax the CO2 emissions of ships, but until recently it resisted them all. Now that the EU’s executive arm was forced, for some reason, to act, it paid attention to make it toothless.

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