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Cruise ships: a paradise of fun or floating killing machine?

Every year tens of thousands of people die because of ship pollution, but cruise liner companies are slow to make the switch to green technology

At a football pitch next to Victoria Harbor in central Hong Kong, kids can be seen dribbling, running and scoring goals. In the background small Chinese fishing boats, local ferries and international cruise ships slowly pass by.

It’s almost idyllic. But the number of children playing for the team could have been considerably higher. Some parents have pulled their kids out of the club because of the ships vomiting out toxic smoke.

“Just look at all that black smoke, all that pollution,” says one of the mothers who doesn’t bring her son to the pitch anymore as we look out over the harbor. “I really love that he enjoyed playing for the team, but this is not a good place.”

Road traffic and factories are often, and correctly, blamed for the deadly smog that pollutes the air in south China and elsewhere across Asia. But every year tens of thousands of people die because of air pollution from the dirty bunker fuel ships burn.

For cruising companies — which are dependent on upholding a glamorous image to attract tourist — the issue is becoming an increasingly sensitive topic, with several green groups slamming the industry for negligence and paying lip service.

According to Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s main trade group, the cruise ship industry is now one of the fastest growing sectors in the mass tourism market, with 24 million passengers expected to sail in this year compared to 15 million a decade earlier.

Hong Kong received 260,000 cruise passengers last year, twice as many as the year before, according to the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau of Hong Kong.

At the same time, pollution increases.

The shipping industry is by far the world’s biggest emitter of sulfur, with the sulfur dioxide content in heavy fuel oil up to 3,500 times higher than the latest European diesel standards for vehicles. Sulfur dioxide is responsible for deadly lung and heart diseases and may contain carcinogenic particles.

Each day when an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more sulfur dioxide than several million cars, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. It can burn as much fuel in a day as a whole town.

But even at berth, cruise ships keep their engines running to provide electrical power to passengers and crew. Just imagine a car park with all cars having their motors on, day in day out.

Indeed, sulfur dioxide emissions of ocean-going vessels at berth accounts for 40% of its total emissions during its stay in Hong Kong, according to the government. Large ships make up one-third to half of airborne pollutants in Hong Kong.

A China-led report published in Nature Climate Change in July said that ship pollution caused an estimated 24,000 premature deaths a year in East Asia. About three-quarters of deaths were in China.

“It is time to crack down on the emissions and destructive development caused by vast container vessels that pollute the air and seas,” a group of Chinese and American academics recently concluded in another Nature article.


Progress is being made in green shipping, with new technology and tougher regulations. Cruise ships can install smokestack scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide, burn lower-sulfur fuel or use liquefied natural gas. They can plug into shore-side power rather than running their engines while in port.

“The direction of the cruise industry is that it is becoming more and more environmentally conscious,” Thatcher Brown, President of Dream Cruises, a new premium line owned by Genting Hong Kong, said in an interview.

“When I look at the industry I see a tremendous amount of progress. It’s never good enough, absolutely not. But some of the cruise lines, I take my hat of for them, are really impressive.”

Jeff Bent, Managing Director at Worldwide Cruise Terminals, operator of Hong Kong’s Kai Tak cruise terminal, said that the industry often was being portrayed unfairly and that much advancement was being made.

Last year, Hong Kong was the first port in Asia to require all ocean-going vessels (OGVs) to switch to low sulfur fuel at berth, with more parts of China following suit. Worldwide, the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) plans to cut the sulfur limit for ships’ fuel to 0.5% from 2020 from a current 3.5%.

“I would say that with the fuel switch regulation in place, and lines installing scrubbers, the race for cleaner air is on,” Bent said.

Not all agree.

Cutting sulfur levels is a good start, says Bill Hemmings, marine expert at Brussels-based Transport and Environment group. But more has to be done to restrict the deadly pollution.

“[Cutting to] 0.5% is a dramatic global shift in one go. But ultimately along vulnerable coasts like Hong Kong and China we need 0.1% and eventually lower,” he said. “[A level of] 0.1% is still 100 times more sulfur than road diesel.”

A report released in June suggested an “ongoing lack of initiative by cruise companies” to address the liners’ environmental footprint and to install technologies that reduce their air and water pollution impact on travel destinations and local people.

“Despite its PR blitz regarding installation of new pollution reduction technology, the cruise industry continues to get an ‘F’ for transparency, and many are failing when it comes to air or water pollution or both,” Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for environmental activist group Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.

“It’s way past time to set a higher bar for this dirty industry.”

Daniel Rieger, a transport officer at German environment group Nabu, was quoted by the Guardian earlier this year:

“Cruise companies create a picture of being a bright, clean and environmentally friendly tourism sector. But the opposite is true,” he said.

“One cruise ship emits as many air pollutants as five million cars going the same distance because these ships use heavy fuel that on land would have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.”

Last year, Hong Kong’s government shelved plans to install plug-in shore power, or cold ironing, at the Kai Tak terminal. The Environmental Protection Department said it would be too costly considering that only 16% of all international cruise ships are equipped with onshore power systems, and is “not a priority task among cruise ports in the Asia-Pacific region.”

And while happy cruise passengers continue to sail through the Hong Kong harbor, children playing football at the waterfront pitch will continue to fill their lungs with the ship’s toxic smoke.

Hong Kong to join mainland China’s fuel emissions plan

National scheme for control areas excluded special administrative region, but local government looks to opt in from 2019

Ships plying the Pearl River Delta, including Hong Kong waters, will have to use cleaner fuel as a part of one of three new national emissions control areas, beginning 2019, the Post has learned.

This follows calls by experts and industry insiders to extend the city’s mandatory fuel switch-at-berth regulation one step further to cover its waters, falling in line with new mainland measures.

The mainland’s Ministry of Transport drew up three emissions control areas – the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta and the Bohai Economic Rim – in December.

Under that plan, all marine vessels will have to switch to low sulphur fuel while in Chinese waters, regardless of whether they are berthed, unlike Hong Kong’s current law, which is limited to berthed ships. The emissions control areas (ECAs) are pencilled to take effect in January 2019.

The ministry’s edict excludes Hong Kong and Macau from the ECA, but a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department last night confirmed Hong Kong would be part of it.

“Hong Kong … will collaborate with the relevant mainland authorities to put the ECA in place,” a spokesman told the Post.

Simon Ng Ka-wing, chief research officer at public policy think tank Civic Exchange welcomed the move, as the discrepancy between Hong Kong and the mainland means ships entering Hong Kong can burn cheaper and dirtier fuel until they berth.

“If the cost difference is big enough, ships will switch back to burning a cheaper fuel for the one to two hours until they get to a berth in Hong Kong,” said Ng.

But he questioned how and if the city would comply with emissions targets set by the ministry under “one country, two systems”.

Hong Kong’s fuel-switch law, which came into effect exactly one year ago today, requires ocean-going vessels calling at the city to switch to fuels with less than 0.5 per cent sulphur at berth. About a tenth of all port calls were already doing so voluntarily -before in came into effect.

Similar measures will go in place in Shenzhen this year.

Ng suggested Hong Kong consider pushing the bar further for the region by requiring a stricter fuel target of 0.1 per cent sulphur – a standard that emissions control areas in the US and Europe have.

Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Shipowners Association, supported tighter fuel standards. He said: “It makes no sense for ships to have to change to a distillate fuel when entering Chinese waters, be able to switch back to dirtier fuel when in Hong Kong waters, and then to switch back to distillate after passing through Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong needs to have its legislation ready so that it is able to bring it into force when the requirement enters into force in [the Pearl River Delta].”

Bowring backed a tighter 0.1 per cent fuel requirement but hoped the supply of those fuels at Asian ports would improve. The department said tightening the standard was “impracticable” due the lack of regional availability.

Since the 1990s shipping, along with power generation, has been the largest contributor of toxic sulphur dioxide emissions in Hong Kong.

The department said data showed sulphur concentrations in Kwai Chung, Tsuen Wan and Sham Shui Po were “30 to 50 per cent lower” in the last 11 months than they were in the preceding period.
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Hong Kong eyes shipping boost from China’s new silk road, Iran

Hong Kong’s crucial shipping trade is hoping China’s overseas infrastructure plan and closer business ties with Iran will enable the city to tackle the downturn in the seaborne sector and tougher competition, officials said.

The global container sector, which transports everything from bananas to iPhones, as well as the dry bulk shipping market hauling commodities including iron ore and coal, is struggling with a glut of ships, a faltering global economy and weaker consumer demand – pressuring freight companies as well as ports that handle the volumes.

Hong Kong, one of the world’s biggest container ports, expects to benefit from China’s new silk road initiative aimed at developing trade and transport links across Asia and beyond.

“You have a lot of building materials that will need to be transported. That will have demand for shipping,” said Jenny Koo with the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC).

“For Hong Kong, our priority markets will be Asia and the Middle East,” she told Reuters during Greece’s Posidonia shipping week in Athens.

The plan to build land, sea and air routes also known as the “One Belt, One Road” was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 with the aim of boosting trade by $2.5 trillion in the next decade. As China’s economic growth slows, Beijing is encouraging its companies to win new markets overseas.

“There are a lot of new projects especially in the context that there is the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative being pushed out,” David Cheng, of the Hong Kong Maritime and Port Board, said separately.

“We have a very strong shipping cluster and we have to attract more people in the industry to make Hong Kong as one of their operating bases.”

Hong Kong handled over 20 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent container units) last year.

The HKTDC’s Koo said global container throughput via Hong Kong was estimated to grow this year by 4.1 percent and intra-Asia trade by 4.4 percent.

Trading and logistics account for 23 percent of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product and the city is targeting more shipping trade with Middle Eastern countries including Iran after international sanctions on Tehran were lifted earlier this year.

Hong Kong officials said freight activity with Iran was expected to include multiple areas such as food products and consumer goods.

“A lot of people have been dealing with Iran through third parties,” said Stephen Wong of the HKTDC. “Now that sanctions are taken away, Hong Kong will benefit … I’m sure that the trade will grow.”

Fuelling a low-emission target

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Steadily declining volume drops Hong Kong down global rankings

Hong Kong slid to fifth place in the global port rankings after another dismal year of declining volumes, with the east Chinese port of Ningbo-Zhoushan stepping into fourth spot.

The port of Hong Kong has now seen throughput volumes falling for 18 consecutive months, according to preliminary figures from the Hong Kong Port Development Council.

You need to go back as far as June of 2014 to find a positive throughput growth figure for Hong Kong. In the eighteen months since then, the port has seen an average monthly throughput decline of 7.4 percent. The highest monthly decline of 18.8 percent was recorded in October of last year.

Port Development Council figures show Hong Kong handled 20.1 million 20-foot-equivalent units in 2015, a drop of 9.5 percent over the previous year, while Ningbo-Zhoushan recorded a throughput of 20.6 million TEUs.

Preliminary figures show Shanghai was the busiest container port in the world last year, handling 36.5 million TEUs, followed by Singapore (30.9 million), Shenzhen (24.2 million), Ningbo-Zhoushan (20.6 million) and Hong Kong (20.1 million).

Singapore also had a miserable 2015, with full year throughput volumes falling 8.7 percent. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) blamed the decline on weak Asia-Europe volumes, the rebalancing of volumes across alliance agreements, and an increase in direct sailings due to low bunker prices.

To increase competitiveness the MPA has reduced the fees it charges container lines by 10 percent, while terminal operator PSA said it is working with customers to help them lower operational costs by enhancing productivity.

The South Korean port of Busan, the sixth-busiest container port worldwide last year, handled 19.45 million TEUs, representing growth of 4 percent. The port managed to expand its transshipment business to 10.8 million TEUs, 52 percent of total volumes, and stated its ambition to overtake Hong Kong as the world’s second-busiest container transshipment hub.

Busan took measures last year to simplify the business environment for foreign shipping lines, including issuing bills for port charges in English as well as Korean, which eliminates the need for foreign lines to use agencies to translate details of the charges. According to an announcement by South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, fees for ships entering, departing and cargo handling at Busan will not be increased this year and will be reduced by 70 percent by 2019.

Ningbo-Zhoushan is also targeting transshipment business as a strategy to insulate itself from the effects of a slowing domestic economy. The port opened a transshipment operations center last year and stepped up development and coordination with major carriers, leading its transshipment traffic to increase by 22 percent to more than 4 million year-over-year from January to November last year.

Terminal operators in Hong Kong are pressing the government for assistance to improve competitiveness. A major issue they face is a rule that prevents mainland truck drivers from driving over the border into Hong Kong, which means when trucks reach the border, the driver has to switch to one holding Hong Kong residency.

The lack of back-up land in the container yards is another major issue. The government released a proposal to integrate 15 hectares (37 acres) of adjacent back-up real estate to build out new yard space and barge berthing facilities, but terminal operators say it is a case of too little, too late.

Hong Kong’s decline as a container shipment hub could be exacerbated if a proposed relaxation in cabotage laws in mainland China comes to fruition. Protection of Hong Kong’s role as a transshipment hub is believed to be one of the primary reasons for continuing restrictions on cabotage in the mainland. With cabotage protections in place, Hong Kong remains attractive for handling mainland China-related transshipment cargo, which in turn sustains its competitiveness in handling transshipment cargo for other trade routes.

Bridging the (dirty) gap

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Do the new regulations on berthing ships in Hong Kong go far enough to curb pollution?

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Pollution drops near Hong Kong container port as ships switch to cleaner fuel, green group says

Ernest Kao

Sulphur pollution near one of Hong Kong’s busiest shipping lanes fell markedly in the first week of this month as a result of new regulations mandating ocean-going vessels switch to cleaner fuel, according to the Clean Air Network.

Average 24-hour concentrations of toxic sulphur dioxide (SO2) in Kwai Chung were recorded at 12 micrograms per cubic metre of air between July 1 – the day the mandate went into effect – and Tuesday.

By comparison, the average 24-hour SO2 concentration in the same period last year was 34 micrograms per cubic metre and 23 micrograms per cubic metre the year before that.

The new rule requires all ocean-bound vessels from tugboats to container ships to switch to 0.5 per cent sulphur marine fuel when berthing in the city.

Kwai Chung, which together with Tsing Yi forms Kwai Tsing district, is located near the Kwai Chung container port – the world’s fourth biggest in terms of throughput.

Previous studies have found the area to be the worst hit district in the city from ship pollution. Ships are the biggest source of SO2 in the city, followed by power generation.

In terms of roadside pollution, average levels of nitrogen dioxide, suspended particulates and ozone all dropped in the first half of the year.

But average concentrations of microscopic particulate matters suspended in the air, or PM, rose in Tuen Mun, Tung Chung, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok in the same period. Particulates can penetrate into the lungs and cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

All five major pollutants measured at 11 out of 15 of the city’s air quality monitoring stations exceeded the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.

Other than in Kwai Chung, Kwun Tong and Tai Po, concentrations of ozone – an indicator of regional air quality –recorded lower than average recordings at all ambient monitoring stations in the first six months of the year.

But the number of times ozone levels exceeded WHO guidelines over eight-hour periods rose at all stations in the same period.

Region should follow Hong Kong’s example on cleaner fuel for vessels

SCMP Editorial

Hong Kong has taken another positive step in fighting air pollution. Since July 1, ocean-going vessels have been required to switch to low-sulphur fuel within local waters under a new law to improve air quality. Emissions of sulphur and respirable suspended particles of 10 microns or less are expected to fall by 12 per cent and 6 per cent as a result. The health risks for those living near container ports and coastal areas will also be lowered.

Credit goes to the government and environmentalists for making this happen. Emissions at sea are known to be a major cause of air pollution. Yet weak marine shipping laws mean the problem has not previously been dealt with seriously. It was not until recent years that vessels were required to switch to less-polluting fuels while berthing in the city under a pilot scheme. This became mandatory under the new law, which allows for a maximum jail term of six months and a HK$200,000 fine for non-compliance.

But air pollution knows no boundaries. Just like the need for collective efforts to keep the neighbourhood clean, it does not help when other cities in the Pearl River Delta are not doing their part. It’s time we convinced our neighbours to do the same and adopt a region-wide fuel standard for vessels. That would mean establishing an emissions control area, within which vessels have to use low-sulphur fuel.

The importance of getting Guangdong and others on board to improve air quality has long been recognised. The joint emission reduction targets set out in the Hong Kong-Guangdong Cooperation Conference, a forum on cross-border issues, are an example. Indeed, the issue of reducing emissions by vessels in the delta region was raised at the conference a few years ago, with both sides pledging to further explore the feasibility of adopting joint fuel standards. Now that we have made efforts to clear up our skies, the next step is to urge our neighbours to follow suit. This is not just for Hongkongers, but also for the tens of millions of people living in the delta region.

Berthing ships must use fuel with low sulphur under new Hong Kong law

New law forces all vessels berthing in the city to switch to cleaner fuel, but now the focus shifts to consistency throughout the Pearl River Delta

Berthing ships must use fuel with low sulphur under new Hong Kong law

Berthing ships must use fuel with low sulphur under new Hong Kong law

An anti-pollution law under which all ocean-going vessels must be powered by low-sulphur fuel while berthing in Hong Kong took effect yesterday, accompanied by calls to look ahead to the next step – pressuring other regional ports to follow suit.

The city now makes it compulsory for berthing ocean-bound vessels to use fuel with sulphur content no higher than 0.5 per cent, lower than the international cap of 3.5 per cent.

In return, shipowners save half of their berthing fees through government subsidies.

The move is expected to cut emissions of sulphur and respirable suspended particles of 10 microns or less by 12 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, according to the Environmental Protection Department – improvements in air quality that one think tank estimates will lead to 44 per cent fewer premature deaths each year.

With the new law now in place, it is time to shift the focus to setting up an emissions control area (ECA) for the Pearl River Delta region, said Simon Ng Ka-wing, chief research officer for the think tank, Civic Exchange.

“There needs to be a level playing field for the entire region,” Ng said. “Shenzhen already has an incentive scheme and hopefully Guangzhou will be pressured to do something, too.”

He said the region’s emissions data was being updated and would provide more justification for an ECA.

Civic Exchange helped pave the way for a local Fair Winds Charter, launched in 2011.

Under the voluntary scheme, 3,000 ocean vessels from 17 freight lines switch to low-sulphur fuel at berth each year, equivalent to roughly 10 per cent of total annual port calls.

With the new mandate, all 30,000 ocean-going ships that berth in Hong Kong yearly must comply, the department said.

Retired Liner Shipping Association chairman Peter Ng Yee-chun agreed a region-wide fuel standard would make things easier for shipping operators.

If an ECA was the ultimate goal, he said, all ships in the region should adopt a consistent standard of 0.1 per cent sulphur in their fuel, the latest cap for recognised ECAs.

This idea was echoed by Shippers’ Council chairman Willy Lin Sun-mo. “It would be much better for shippers, if Shenzhen or Guangzhou could adopt the same regulation for a consistency of regional standards,” he said.

Subsidies to help the industry comply end in 2018, and the question is how to transfer the cost, eventually, to the consumer. Current oil prices make 0.5 sulphur fuel 20 per cent more expensive than regular heavy fuel.

“All parties need to shoulder the cost burden,” Peter Ng said.