The biggest shake-up to the oil and shipping industry in decades is set to come into force in just over two months’ time.

Sam Meredith, CNBC; October 30, 2019.

On January 1, 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will impose new emissions standards designed to significantly curb pollution produced by the world’s ships.

Amid a broader push toward cleaner energy markets, the IMO is poised to ban shipping vessels using fuel with a sulfur content higher than 0.5%, compared to the present upper limit level of 3.5%.

The most commonly used marine fuel is thought to have a sulfur content of around 2.7%.

CNBC takes a look at those best placed to cope with the rule change, as well as those likely to struggle with what has previously been described as the “biggest change in oil market history.”

Who are the Winners?

“Let me start with the winners: Humankind and nature. It’s a big win,” Cas Pouderoyen, senior vice president of ocean freight at Agility, a global logistics company, told CNBC via telephone.

The shipping industry is under intense pressure to slash its sulfur emissions because the pollutant has a negative effect on human health and is a component of acid rain — which harms vegetation and aquatic species.

A study on the human health impacts of sulfur oxides, published in 2016 and cited by the IMO, estimates that over 570,000 premature deaths will be prevented between 2020 and 2025 by the introduction of new shipping regulations.

It claims a reduction in the limit for sulfur fuel oil used by ships will have “tangible health benefits,” especially for coastal communities or those living near major shipping routes.

“IMO 2020 is important from the environmental side of things. An industry that is more market savvy would have made that the focus,” Patrik Berglund, CEO of Xeneta, a Norwegian-based company that crowdsources freight data, told CNBC via telephone.

“The shipping industry should be saying: ‘The cost increase is nominal, and we are saving the world!’” “But, no one is talking about that,” Berglund said.

Neil Millar, research analyst at Lazard Asset Management, told CNBC via telephone that he believed refineries with the “wherewithal to turn nasty, cheap crude into compliant, clean products,” would be best placed to cope with the looming sea change.

“The U.S. is very well placed, big emerging markets companies have made big strides and most European majors are well prepared too,” Millar said.

Who are the Losers?

For some of the world’s biggest oil producers, the new rules coming into force represent a source of great concern.

The forthcoming measures are widely expected to create an oversupply of high-sulfur fuel oil while sparking demand for IMO-compliant products — thus ratcheting up the pressure on the refining industry to produce substantially more of the latter.

This is especially important, energy analysts say, because Middle Eastern oil producers — such as OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia — are likely to lose out given their over-reliance on crude with a high sulfur content.

“It is going to increase costs for a lot of importers and exporters,” Agility’s Pouderoyen said, highlighting the vulnerability of some low-value commodities, such as timber and plastics.

“The impact will be quite dramatic — it doesn’t matter whether you are in Sweden or New Zealand, it’s going to get more expensive.”

Maritime transport is critical to the global economy, with more than 90% of the world’s trade carried by sea, according to the United Nations (UN). It is also — by far — the most cost-effective way to move goods and raw materials.

More than 170 countries, including the U.S., have signed on to the fuel change.

Starting in 2020, ships found in violation of the new law risk being impounded and ports in cooperating countries are expected to police visiting vessels.

“Everybody thinks that increased costs will hurt imports and exports and hence costs will be passed on to consumers,” Xeneta’s Berglund said. “That might not be the truth — and historically there is no evidence to support that.”

Analysts estimate the container industry — which transports consumer goods such as sofas, designer clothes and bananas — is likely to be among those hit the hardest, with additional costs of approximately $10 billion, according to a Reuters report.

The world’s two largest container shipping lines, A.P. Moller-Maersk and MSC, have both reportedly said that falling in line with IMO regulations is likely to incur extra costs of roughly $2 billion each.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for the shipping lines to jack up prices because the entire industry expects increased costs,” Berglund said.

“My biggest concern is cost increases won’t be passed on. In a worst-case scenario, it could lead to another Hanjin situation,” he added, referring to the collapse of Hanjin Shipping in 2017which had been the world’s seventh-largest container shipper prior to its financial demise.