Barcelona Convention COP 22 secures consensus on curbing emissions of Sulphur Oxides from ships in the Mediterranean


Athens, 14 December 2021— The 22nd Meeting (COP 22) of the Contracting Parties to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention) and its Protocols, held in Antalya, Turkey, on 7-10 December 2021, adopted a groundbreaking decision on the designation of the Mediterranean Sea, as a whole, as an Emission Control Area for Sulphur Oxides (Med SOx ECA) pursuant to Annex VI to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).


Photo credit: IISD/Diego Noguera


The decision is the culmination of intense consultations among the Contracting Parties that have been facilitated by the UN Environment Programme’s Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP). It clears the way for the submission in 2022 of a joint and coordinated proposal on the designation of the Med SOx ECA to the 78th Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 78) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The Med SOx ECA could come into force in January 2025.

“The historic decision speaks volumes of the importance of the UNEP/MAP-Barcelona Convention system as an effective framework for multilateral action on environmental protection and sustainable development in the Mediterranean regions. Once again, Mediterranean solidarity—an important value that the UNEP/MAP-Barcelona Convention upholds—has prevailed. This achievement was made possible thanks to the commitment of the Contracting Parties and with the support of Plan Bleu and REMPEC, two UNEP/MAP Regional Activity Centres of UNEP/MAP,” Tatjana Hema, the Coordinator of UNEP/MAP said.

The Mediterranean Sea remains one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. In 2019, it saw around 24 per cent of the global fleet of ships and more than 17 per cent of worldwide cruises. Emissions from ships contribute to the overall air quality degradation in the Mediterranean region, particularly in coastal zones. Exposure to certain concentrations of air pollutants is linked to risks of contracting lung cancer, cardiovascular illnesses and asthma.  In 2016 more than 228,000 people died prematurely from exposure to air pollution, according to the State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean (SoED), a flagship UNEP/MAP publication produced by Plan Bleu.

The potential benefits of the Med SOx ECA are considerable given the depth of the cuts in Sulphur Oxides (SOx) emissions that it would bring about. The agreement reached at COP 22 caps the Sulphur content in fuel oil at 0.10% m/m. This represents one fifth of the current global legal limit, which came into force on 1 January 2020 when IMO brought the limit of Sulphur in fuel oil used on board ships operating outside designated Emission Control Areas down to 0.50% m/m from 3.5% m/m. According to studies undertaken by UNEP/MAP, the Med SOx ECA would translate into a 78.7 per cent drop in SOx emissions. In addition, emissions of particulate matter (PM 2.5) would also be slashed by 23.7 per cent.

Cleaner air means better health, including a reduced vulnerability to COVID-19—known to take acute forms when the virus encounters underlying conditions—and other respiratory and cardiovascular ailments. The Med SOx ECA would bring significant benefits for nature, too. When released in the atmosphere, SOx can cause acid rain and exacerbate ocean acidification. In addition to improvements in air quality along the rim of the Mediterranean basin, it would benefit farming, livestock husbandry and other socio-economic activities in the densely populated Mediterranean coastal zones. Curbing SOx emissions would also be good news for drivers and seafarers, as it would yield improvements in visibility both inland and at sea across large swathes of North Africa and in the Straits of Gibraltar.

“The Mediterranean is set to join four other designated Emission Control Areas for SOx and particulate matter currently in place around the world. Beyond the shipping sector, the historic decision on the designation of the Med SOx ECA will send ripple effects across the Mediterranean Blue Economy and its multiple interfaces with land-based pursuits. This is an unequivocal confirmation that time has come to flick the green switch in the region,” Ms. Hema observed.

In addition to the decision on the designation of the Med SOx ECA, COP 22 adopted a substantial package for sustainability, including the Post-2020 Strategic Action Programme for the Conservation of Biodiversity and Sustainable Management of Natural Resources in the Mediterranean Region (Post-2020 SAPBIO), the Mediterranean Strategy for the Prevention, Preparedness and Response to Marine Pollution from Ships (2022-2031), and the Ballast Water Management Strategy for the Mediterranean Sea (2022-2027).

“We could not have possibly thought of a better way to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the adoption of the Barcelona Convention,” Ms. Hema concluded.


About COP 22

The Contracting Parties to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention) and its Protocols concluded their 22nd meeting (COP 22, Antalya, Turkey, 7-10 December 2021) with a package of action-oriented decisions to protect the Mediterranean marine and coastal environment and bolster sustainable development. Learn more

For more information, please contact:

  • Jihed Ghannem, Public Information Officer, ghannem[at]
    Pauline Simon, Communication Officer of Plan Bleu,

This successful outcome has been possible thanks to the active contribution of Plan Bleu