BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Tough new limits on the maximum sulphur content of shipping fuels will come into effect in Europe at the end of the decade, after EU governments agreed on draft legislation on Wednesday.
Air pollution from marine fuels with a high sulphur content is estimated to cause 50,000 premature deaths a year in Europe, the European Parliament has said.
"This is excellent news for our health and the environment, especially in ports and coastal areas," EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in a statement.
"Without this directive, emissions from shipping would exceed emissions from all land-based sources by 2020."
The European Commission has said switching fuels or fitting exhaust filters to meet the new limits will cost the shipping industry between 2.6 billion and 11 billion euros ($3.3 billion-$14 billion). That sum would be far outweighed by public health savings of up to about 30 billion euros, it said.
Under the new law, the maximum sulphur content of fuels will be limited to 0.5 percent for all ships from 2020, from the current 3.5 percent for cargo vessels and 1.5 percent for passenger ships.
A tighter limit of 0.1 percent will apply from 2015 to ships operating in "sulphur emission control areas", which include the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Channel. The limit in these areas is currently 1 percent.
"The EU stuck to its guns in the face of heavy lobbying from polluting shipping companies, which wanted Europe to renege on its international commitments and adopt less ambitious legislation," said Satu Hassi, the Green politician who led debate on the issue in the European Parliament.
Ships that fail to meet the new limits will face possible fines from national authorities, which the Commission said must be set high enough to cancel out any savings from not complying with the rules.
Under the agreement, governments may provide investment support to shipping firms to avoid damage to the sector's competitiveness, provided any support complies with EU state aid rules.
Wednesday's agreement by EU diplomats must be rubber-stamped by EU ministers and lawmakers, which is expected by September at the latest.
(Reporting by Barbara Lewis and Charlie Dunmore; editing by James Jukwey)