Scrubbers: less pollution in the air, more pollution in the sea


A tool for shipowners to keep using heavy fuel oil 

As European and international legislation to combat sulphur emissions into the atmosphere becomes tougher, heavy fuel oil still accounts for 70% of total fuel consumption in the shipping world. This heavy fuel oil is only compatible with the new regulations if scrubbers are used on board.  

The scrubber is a device installed in chimneys that filters engine exhaust fumes. The fumes are then brought into contact with water which absorbs the gaseous pollutants they contain. The clean fumes are then released into the atmosphere. Dirty water is either discharged directly into the sea for open-loop scrubbers or stored and treated on land for closed-loop systems. 

According to a new report released by the ICCT (International Council on Clean Transportation): 

To discover the full report: Air emissions and water pollution discharges from ship with scrubbers.

Surfrider Europe takes a stand against open-loop scrubbers 

Several studies show the harmful consequences of the use of scrubbers on marine environment. The report presented by the Swedish Environmental Research Institute to the International Maritime Organisation in January 2020 shows the toxicity of water discharged into the sea by open system scrubbers on marine biodiversity, increased by the combined effect of the various pollutants present. The International Council for the Exploitation of the Sea report on scrubber waters published this autumn comes to the same conclusions, pointing out the immediate mortality of plankton. Longer-term effects related to the bioaccumulation, acidification and eutrophication of pollutants in the marine environment accentuate the impact of scrubber waters on biodiversity. Finally, the latest study by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) estimates that 78% of ships' water discharged into the sea comes from open-loop systems.

Keeping that in mind, Surfrider Foundation Europe continues to campaign for a ban on open-loop scrubbers on ships. This is one of the evaluation criteria of the Green Marine Europe label, from this year, 2020. 

Encouraging legislative advances 

Scientific studies have resulted in legislative advances at European level. Notably MEP Karima Delli presented in Brussels, a report on initiatives proposing the end of the use of open-loop scrubbers and the Parliament voted in favour of a progressive ban.

The MRV regulation on the monitoring of CO2 emissions from maritime transport was also recently enriched by an amendment to strengthen sanctions against degassing at sea, i.e. the discharge of dirty water from ships, adopted under the leadership of MEP and former sailor Catherine Chabaud.

Finally, the European Commission's Starfish Mission plans to ban open-loop scrubber-equipped vessels from European waters by 2025. 

The fight against atmospheric emissions from maritime transport continues 

Surfrider Europe continues to take action to combat air pollution from maritime transport. As such, the association supports the adoption of new controlled emission zones (SECA), in which the level of sulphur emitted is limited to 0.1% by mass, compared to 0.5% elsewhere. These SECA zones are essential, notably in the Mediterranean Sea, which is particularly vulnerable due to its unique marine biodiversity.

The NGO Is also taking contentious legal action under the Surfrider Coastal Defenders programme, and bringing civil action for each new violation of the regulations. The current action concerns the MS Azura, a ship inspected in 2018 in Marseilles with sulphur levels higher than that of the Environment Code, whose trial in cassation is expected in 2021. 

Scrubbers in general and open-loop scrubbers still remains the main fallback solution for shipowners to continue using heavy fuel oil. Its harmful consequences for the marine environment are still numerous, which is why there is an urgent need for an energy transition towards the use of alternative carbon-free fuels in maritime transport. 

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