When the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) meets in London next month, international rules affecting exhaust gas emissions on all classes of vessels including superyachts will become clear. The IMO may adopt the Russian amendment to delay the onset of Tier III emissions limits; if that happens, it's likely that the United States will unilaterally impose the strictest possible limits within its own waters.

On the matter of MARPOL emissions targets, the IMO has been the scene of relatively dramatic political manoeuvrings in the past year. How things will turn out next depends entirely on the outcome of political play-making that follows from the events at last year’s MEPC 65. It was then that the Russians proposed the amendment to MARPOL Annex VI, Tier III which would impose a 5-year delay to the imposition of the rules—which otherwise would come into force on 1 January 2016. That original timeline had caused significant stress within some of the industry’s foremost builders of smaller, high-powered yachts because NOx scrubbers that could achieve the exceedingly low emissions targets simply are not yet small enough to fit within existing engine room designs.

IMO Secretary General, Koji Sekimizu

Focused on the concerns of their constituencies, ICOMIA and SYBAss had put in long hours ahead of MEPC 65 to demonstrate that builders of yachts under 500gt would be adversely commercially affected by the 2016 emissions limits. When the Russians surprised everyone by tabling the proposal to amend the timeline for all vessels, it appeared that superyacht builders were about to benefit from a bit of IMO politics going on over their heads.

However in the intervening year, subsequent papers have been submitted to the IMO offering counter-proposals on how to move forward. At the same time, the issue of how the emission limits adversely affect the leisure yacht industry have become better established, and in effect, a 5-year exemption for yachts under 500gt has become the compromise position. Russia’s proposal for a 5-year delay for all vessels is on one side, while Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan and the United States have presented their own paper taking issue with the Russian proposal, but at the same time offering an amendment that offers the five year delay to yachts under 500gt designed and used for recreational purposes. 

If Russia’s proposed amendment prevails—meaning the 5-year delay will apply to all shipping—then, according to experts with knowledge of the matter, it is likely the US will take unilateral action and impose their own emissions controls within US waters. The US already does this, of course, with their EPA Tier 4. Current US EPA Tier 4 NOx emissions limits for large superyacht engines are 3.5g/kWh; IMO's proposed Tier III NOx limits are more stringent, at 1.96g/kWh.

The question is: Will the IMO pass the Russian amendment, and if so, how will the US respond?

The success of ICOMIA and SYBAss’ efforts, has now made its way well into the US delegation, and could have an easier time being heard by the EPA in the US, which will make the final decision on any new emissions rules. For the sake of the superyacht industry, one hopes the EPA takes the same view as has the US delegation to the IMO, and includes a 5-year delay for yachts under 500gt.

The 66th meeting of the IMO's MEPC takes place 31 March to 4 April at the IMO Headquarters in London.

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