The European Council of Environmental Ministers on Monday adopted an amendment to its 1999 marine fuels directive calling for considerable reductions in sulfur content of shipping fuels used in the heavily traveled Baltic and North Seas.
After passage in the European Parliament in September, the new rules mandate sulfur content of marine fuels of no greater than 1 percent though 2014 and 0.1 percent thereafter in designated "SO2 emission control areas" in the two seas and the English Channel.
Other waters are targeted for an even bigger cut -- from 4.5 percent to 0.5 percent -- by 2020.
The sulfur fuel-content mandate was passed by the European Parliament despite strong opposition from Finnish business interests, especially the country's forest products and papermaking industries, which make heavy use of Baltic Sea shipping vessels to move products to export markets.
But EU officials say sulfur emissions from shipping contributes to air pollution in the form of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which harm human health and contribute to acidification.
The amended directive aims to force ships to use cleaner fuel in a bid to "address persistent air quality problems" in advance of a wider European Commission review of air policy scheduled to be taken up before 2013.
"The EU has now sent a clear signal that it wants cleaner fuels earlier rather than later while still leaving a very generous eight years for the industry to adapt," European Environmental Bureau Policy Officer on Air Pollution Louise Duprez said.
"Shipping air pollution causes 50,000 premature deaths in Europe every year so this reduction will bring clear benefits to people's health, quality of life and environment, as well as leading to important public health savings."
In Finlande, exporters estimated the cost of meeting the directive at around $1.3 billion per year. The country's papermakers complained the initiative was being phased in too quickly.
Jussi Pesonen, chief executive of UPM-Kymmene Corp. threatened in an industry newsletter to move production to Central Europe, while Timo Jaatinen, managing director of the Finnish Forest Industries Federation, told Finnish broadcaster YLE investments in new plants were being put on hold ahead of implementation of the rules.
"Now when it isn't known what is happening, investment is stalled, so Finnish factories are not developing," said Jaatinen. "That is naturally a problem. If industry is to remain competitive, then it should also invest in the future."
Polish industry has also warned of adverse consequences with the new sulfur limits.
The Warsaw business newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna estimated freight shipping costs could rise 40 percent for companies such as PKN Orlen, whose oil tankers ply the Baltic Sea, Polish Radio reported.
To help its industries cope with the new directive, the Finnish government allocated $39 million to help ship owners retrofit their vessels with "wet scrubbers," used to remove sulfur from smokestack emissions.
Finnish Minister of Economic Affairs Jyri Hakamies told YLE the government is seeking ways to help exporters hit by increased costs while also complying with EU competition rules.