South Korea Establishes an Emission Control Area for Ships

This guest post was authored by NRDC consultant Freda Fung.

In a major victory for the environment and public health, South Korea is the second Asian country to set a timetable for requiring oceangoing vessels to switch to ultra-low sulfur fuel when navigating at or near its major seaports.

Implementation details of the marine fuel standard, hereafter called Korea’s Emission Control Area (ECA) regulation, was released in an regulation advance notice on August 20, 2019.  Similar to China’s Domestic Emission Control Area policy (summarized here and here), Korea’s ECA regulation will be introduced in stages, allowing the industry more time to prepare.

Beginning on January 1, 2020, ships operating inside South Korea’s Port Air Quality Control Zones (the yellow areas shown in Figures 1 and 2, hereafter called Control Zones) shall use fuel with sulfur content not exceeding 0.5 percent (0.5% sulfur fuel).  This is in line with the tougher global marine fuel sulfur standard set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to take effect in January 2020.

On September 1, 2020, ships shall switch to 0.1% sulfur fuel when berthing at ports within the Control Zones, which cover Korea’s five main seaports: Busan (the world’s sixth busiest container port), Incheon, Yeosu-Gwangyang, Ulsan and Pyeongtaek-Dangjin. From January 2022 onward, all ships shall use 0.1% sulfur fuel when navigating or berthing inside the Control Zones.

South Korea will be the second Asian country to impose a 0.1% fuel sulfur limit on oceangoing vessels. In China, under the Domestic Emission Control Area (DECA) regulation, oceangoing vessels (OGVs) that ply the inland river DECAs shall use 0.1% sulfur fuel beginning on January 1, 2020; the same applies to ships operating inside China’s Hainan waters from January 2022 onward.

Representing a 80% cut in sulfur content from the IMO 0.5% global standard, the 0.1% sulfur limit is the same as the standard now in force in the four Emission Control Areas (ECAs) designated by the IMO. Countries in these ECAs, after implementing the 0.1% ECA sulfur limit in 2015, have seen considerable air quality improvement: European countries saw sulfur oxide concentration in air dropped by as much as 60%, while US coastal regions found toxic fine particulates from burning of residual shipping fuel reduced by an average of 74%.

Korea’s ECA regulation is part of a package of comprehensive measures to tackle port and shipping air pollution.  In March 2019, South Korea’s National Assembly passed a Special Act on Air Quality Improvement in Port and Other Areas to combat air pollution from shipping and port activities, which account for 10% of air pollution from local sources. The Special Act stipulates a series of measures, including setting a stricter marine fuel standard, restricting vessel speed, prohibiting old diesel vehicles from entering port areas, and encouraging port equipment and yard tractors to switch to liquefied natural gas from diesel.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (MOF) and the Ministry of Environment are joining hands to implement these measures, which are expected to reduce fine particulate pollution at ports by more than half by 2022. To support successful implementation, the annual budget for controlling port particulate pollution and comprehensive improvement of port environment will be quadrupled to 119.3 billion won (US$100 million), from the current level of 31.2 billion won (US$26 million).

We commend South Korea for its leadership in tackling shipping and port pollution. International shipping causes 800 premature deaths annually in South Korea, and over 24,000 premature deaths in East Asia. Korea’s ECA regulation and other measures stipulated in the Special Act are an important step towards protecting human health not just in South Korea, but also the region.

A logical next step would be to make sure the ECA regulation is effectively enforced, to ensure that the promised air quality and health benefits are realized. NRDC has documented practices adopted in Europe and the US for enforcing the ECA regulations. While our report was prepared for supporting China in building its enforcement capacity, those practices were developed for verifying compliance of seagoing ships with fuel switching regulations in general, so can also serve as reference for devising a rigorous enforcement program in South Korea.  

Looking ahead, in light of the heavy ship traffic near China and South Korea (depicted by the white lines in Figure 3), it would be in the interest of both countries to explore jointly applying to the IMO for a regional ECA to achieve greater emissions reduction.

National regulations (such as China’s DECA and Korea’s ECA) can only impose stricter requirements on international ships plying within a country’s territorial waters (i.e., within 12 nm of the coast), whereas the regulatory boundary of an IMO ECA can go as far as 200 nm from the coast. By establishing a regional IMO ECA, China and South Korea could extend the 0.1% sulfur fuel requirement to all ships operating in the waters between the two countries, thereby providing greater air quality and health benefits. NRDC look forward to supporting South Korea, in whatever ways we can, in implementing this important regulation, and future actions for combating shipping and port pollution.

Acknowledgement: We would like to thank Jiahui Ji, Researcher of the China Research Center of Korea Maritime Institute for sharing the Chinese translation of the Korea ECA regulation and implementation details of the regulation.  We also thank Dr. Jingtao Shan for preparing the Chinese translation of this blog.

Figure 1. Port Air Quality Control Zones of South Korea (aka Korea’s ECA, to take effect in January 2020)

Jiahui Ji, China Research Center of Korea Maritime Institute

Figure 2. Ports in Korea’s Port Air Quality Control Zones Note: The five main Korea seaports are labeled in English

Jiahui Ji, China Research Center of Korea Maritime Institute

The five main Korea seaports are labeled in English.

Figure 3. Geographical coverage of China’s DECAs and Korea’s ECAs

Jiahui Ji, China Research Center of Korea Maritime Institute

White lines depict ship traffic; DECA denotes Domestic Emission Control Area and ECA denotes Emission Control Area.
Base map with ship traffic is obtained from; the author added the boundary of the emission control zones.

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