The European Commission welcomes the agreement reached yesterday by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) on stepping up protection of the Mediterranean, with a considerable tightening of the rules on exhaust gases from ships. This designation of the Mediterranean Sea as an Emission Control Area for sulphur oxides (SECA) will eventually cut emissions of these gases by almost 80%, and will also cut emissions of harmful fine dust (PM2.5) by almost a quarter, with considerable benefits for human health and the environment. The initiative was developed in the framework of the Barcelona Convention by the Mediterranean States and the EU, and has been submitted jointly to the IMO. It is a very good example of successful international collaboration made possible by regional sea conventions.
Sulphur oxides are exhaust gases from ship engines that burn marine fuel containing sulphur. As well as harming human health, they also cause acidification of water and soil. The designation of the Mediterranean as an emissions control area means that as of 1 May 2025 ships will be required to use marine fuel with reduced sulphur content. The permissible sulphur content will fall from the current limit of 0.5% to 0.1 %. This drop should save at least 1000 premature deaths per year, and reduce new cases of child asthma by 2000 every year in the Mediterranean basin.
Estimates point to around 300.000 premature deaths each year that are attributable to air pollution in the EU, a situation the Commission is addressing through a major revision of its air quality legislation, as part of the Zero Pollution Action Plan.
Under the European Green Deal, the EU is committed to decarbonising and depolluting all sectors including maritime transport. In the framework of the Zero Pollution Action plan and the EU Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy the Commission aims to extend the protection from shipping’s air pollution to all EU waters. Emission control areas for sulphur already exist in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, where they have proved very successful. Emission control areas for nitrogen oxides in those two seas have entered into force in 2021.
The Commission will continue to contribute to preparations for the implementation of the Mediterranean SECA which should start immediately. Similarly, the Commission will also continue to support future initiatives by the littoral EU States aiming at creating additional ECAs to cover all EU waters, including through regional sea conventions.
The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention) and its protocols was adopted in 1976. It has 22 contracting parties, including the EU and 8 EU Mediterranean Member States. The UN Environment Programmes (UNEP) created their Mediterranean action plan in 1975, providing a regional framework to address common environmental challenges in the Mediterranean.
The International Maritime Organization, a UN body, oversees the MARPOL Convention, an international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships. It already adopted a 2020 mandatory Global Sulphur Cap, which requires the previous maximum sulphur content within fuel to be reduced from 3.5% sulphur to 0.5% sulphur. The IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee, meeting between 12 – 16 December 2022, adopted the resolution to designate the Mediterranean as a Sulphur Emission Control Area (SECA) within MARPOL’s Annex VI, which deals with air pollution prevention. This SECA now means that ships within the area must use fuel with 0.1% sulphur content.
For more information
News article Improving the health of the Mediterranean Sea: EU and Mediterranean countries agree a marine environmental strategy and an emissions control area for shipping (europa.eu) (10 December 2021)
Press releaseCleaner Air in 2020: 0.5% sulphur cap for ships enters into force worldwide(3 January 2020)
Press release Concerted EU action reduces air pollution from shipping in European coastlines and ports (19 April 2018)
- Publication date
- 16 December 2022
- Directorate-General for Environment