The European Union (EU) member states have agreed on draft legislation which will ensure all vessels operating in EU waters reduce harmful emissions by adhering to sulphur content limits in marine fuels.
Under the agreement, and in line with Annex VI of the MARPOL Convention, ships operating in the EU's SO2 emission control areas (SECAs), which cover the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel, will have to lower the amount of sulphur used in marine fuel from 1% to 0.1% by 2015.
In addition, ships operating in other EU waters are also expected to lower the amount of sulphur used in fuels to 0.5% by 2020, a decrease from 3.5% for cargo ships and 1.5% for passenger vessels.
EU commissioner for environment Janez Potocnik said the legislation to reduce sulphur and hence secondary particulate matter emissions from ships now have the political support of member states.
"This is excellent news for our health and the environment, especially in ports and coastal areas, as it means that an agreement with the European Parliament on the directive on the sulphur content of marine fuels is now possible," Potocnik said.
"Without this directive emissions from shipping would, by 2020, exceed emissions from all land-based sources."
The draft legislation also has a provision that non-compliance of the rules could be punished with fines from national authorities once they are signed by environment ministers and the full European Parliament.
Many shipping companies are reported to have complained about the high cost of complying with the regulation but the European Commission said governments can provide investment support to help improve the competitiveness of the industry.
The EU commission is also planning to use financial instruments to promote the development and testing of alternative technologies to reduce emissions from ships, the commission said.
The agreement, which is based on international regulations adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), intends to reduce emissions and provide a high level of protection for human health and the environment.
According to the commission, in the review of its air quality policy scheduled for 2013, they will consider all possibilities on how to reduce air pollution, including in the territorial seas of member states.