When discussing the impending global 0.5% sulphur cap and what will happen come 1 January 2020, it’s useful to recall that timing the introduction of new regulations has never been the forte of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The Ballast Water Convention, for all intents and purposes to be in force from 2024 was originally meant for a much earlier date and was first an adopted resolution in 1993. The Hong Kong Convention on ship recycling appeared in 2009 but will not be adopted any time soon.

Having said that, it would appear the date for enforcement of the sulphur cap is written in stone, and it will come into force on the given date come hell or high water. So we are left to ponder how successful implementation will be in those early days and what options will be taken up. This is more difficult than it seems.

At the recent Posidonia Exhibition in Athens, the majority view, with some notable exceptions, amounted to a rejection of marine scrubbers. The vote went to low-sulphur, distillate fuels or LNG. Such views have been reflected in the shipping press for months. What we are not getting, at least not in the public domain, are the oil majors and the shipping industry openly discussing the fast-approaching red-letter day and how they can cooperate to get an optimum outcome.

Here in Hong Kong, leading ship owners such as Pacific Basin have made it clear they will not be investing in marine scrubbers. Separately, Exxon Mobil Marine Fuels and BP have signed up for 0.5% sulphur fuel oil; what they are more concerned about is what will happen to their high-sulphur fuels.

In some circles, LNG-powered vessels are being viewed as a highly viable option. They certainly fit the low-sulphur model, but they can really only be an interim solution in the light of the zero-carbon ambitions of the industry by 2050.

However, it will not be a matter of simply shifting from one fuel to another. As the International Chamber of Shipping pointed out after its AGM in Hong Kong in May, many ships will have to use blended fuel oils and new products, which are outside of the ISO 8217 standard.These have the potential to create serious safety issues related to the use of compliant but incompatible bunkers. In some cases, this could even lead to loss of power on the ship.

Pragmatism will be important come 1 January, 2020. As part of a joint industry submission to IMO ahead of a critical meeting on the subject, a draft standard will be presented for reporting on fuel oil non-availability as well as amendments to MARPOL Annex VI to require sampling points for fuel oil; and verification issues and control mechanisms and actions.

With such safety mechanisms in place and the presence of pragmatic port state control authorities enforcing compliance in the opening months of what is an unprecedented experiment, come 2021 the shipping industry will have earned a burnished reputation as a more environmentally friendly industry. Oh, but then there is that tickly problem with carbon.