By Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Legislators in the European Parliament backed plans on Thursday to limit the maximum sulfur content of shipping fuels to 0.1 percent in some cases, meaning ships would need to switch fuels or be fitted with exhaust filters.
"Urgent action is needed to stem the rapid growth in pollution from shipping, with air pollutant emissions from shipping expected to outstrip land-based emissions by 2020," Satu Hassi, a Finnish MEP who is co-drafting the measure said.
Air pollution from ships is estimated to cause 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, the parliament said, and the bloc's executive has estimated the new limits could reduce EU healthcare costs by up to 30 billion euros ($39 billion).
The parliament's influential environment committee approved proposals from the European Commission to stagger the reduction in sulfur emissions from 1.5 percent to 0.1 percent by 2015 in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel.
In other seas, emissions would fall from the current 3.5 percent ceiling to 0.1 percent by 2020. Passenger ships would also be effected from 2020.
If the rule change is confirmed, ships will have to switch from heavy fuel oil to distilled fuels or install so-called "scrubbers" to remove sulfur dioxide from exhaust gases.
Following the vote, the parliament is now expected to start negotiations with EU governments to try to quickly finalize the new rules in time for a scheduled vote by the full legislature at the end of May. ($1 = 0.7654 euros)
(Editing by Charlie Dunmore)