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Natural partnership


17 Sep, 2009

Reducing highly toxic emissions from ships must be a key part of the government’s clean-air strategy. Right now, shipping emissions are regarded as a problem that can wait. Officials have not given this a higher priority because they take a total-quantity approach rather than a public health one. Total emissions from power plants and road vehicles are many times higher than that from ships. But this approach misses the high toxicity of bunker fuel. Data from the maritime industry shows that the 15 biggest ships in the world today may emit the same amount of pollution as all the cars in the world.

Imagine a large container ship coming into Kwai Chung terminal. It stays there for, say, a day to load and unload cargo. While the ship is docked, it is still burning bunker fuel to generate electricity. Under international agreements, oceangoing vessels can burn bunker fuel with up to 4.5 per cent sulphur content, although the average is about 3 per cent. This is extremely high compared to the 0.005 per cent sulphur content of ultra-low sulphur diesel that road vehicles burn in Hong Kong. Kwai Chung is close to the homes and workplaces of millions of people. Even light breezes can blow the emissions to heavily populated areas.

The issue, then, is straightforward. The government must multitask – while it prepares plans to drive down power and vehicular emissions, it must at the same time deal with ships. So far, officials have only proposed to deal with local vessels. These are the smaller vessels operating in local waters, such as pleasure boats, ferries, hydrofoils and barges. They are already burning much cleaner fuels, with 0.5 per cent sulphur content. The government is proposing that all local vessels should use ultra-low sulphur diesel, which will help. A refinement to this proposal is to set a limit on emissions and allow owners to use other means to achieve the same emission levels as ultra-low sulphur diesel, since other technology may be able to achieve the same results.

The problem remains that oceangoing vessels are not included in this proposal and they are the heavy polluters burning bunker fuel. Let’s face facts. The container ports of Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou handle about 12 per cent of the global container traffic. This is an awful lot for a small body of water. Hong Kong and Shenzhen are, in fact, sister ports because of their proximity, and also because they share essentially the same investors and operators. And even if ships are heading for Shenzhen, many pass through Hong Kong waters and their emissions affect our residents.

In fact, all major port cities and cross-jurisdiction regions face the same problems. International maritime agreements on emissions have moved quite slowly. For example, oceangoing ships will only have to meet fuel standards with 3.5 per cent sulphur content by 2012, and perhaps 0.5 per cent by 2020. This is far too slow, so port authorities are taking the initiative to clean up marine emissions and related container-truck pollution.

The US ports of Seattle and Tacoma and their neighbouring Canadian port of Vancouver have formed an extensive partnership to maintain clean waterways and air quality. Its members include port operators, local environmental authorities and public health experts. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are also co-operating to find solutions that include using financial incentives for ships to burn cleaner fuel as they enter Californian waters. European ports are exploring similar initiatives.

Hong Kong and Shenzhen are ideal partners to devise green port policies. The public should insist that it becomes part of the government’s push to work with Guangdong to improve air quality, and also make it an important element of cross-border collaboration. The good news is that many ship owners, liners and terminal operators are ready to act because their ships and overseas operations have already been forced to clean up. They know the global trend. The authorities here need to demand action so there is a level playing field. In other words, discriminate against the laggards, not those who can lead.

Hong Kong’s port is an economic lifeline – and one of its worst sources of pollution, writes Christine Loh

Low-hanging fruit is ripe for picking. But it can only be harvested at the optimal time. And, so, the government must move ahead to deal with marine and port-related emissions now because emission levels are rising, yet many stakeholders are ready to perform at a higher environmental level. By taking decisive action in the near future, the government will win political kudos.

The authorities have a duty to act if they are serious about protecting public health. Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta have some of the busiest ports in the world. Between 2001 and 2006, Hong Kong’s container throughput increased by about 32 per cent, from 17.8 million to 23.5 million 20-foot equivalent units (teus), a measurement for containerised tonnage. Our neighbour, Shenzhen, has also seen massive increases, from about 5 million teus in 2001 to nearly 18.5 million teus in 2006.

Millions of people in the region live and work close to ports and are directly exposed to very harmful levels of shipping and port-related emissions. After all, ship emissions come from the burning of bunker fuel, which is highly toxic. While in total tonnage terms, marine emissions are much less than from power plants, bunker fuel is nevertheless very dirty and its emissions affect more than 3 million people in Hong Kong, according to a government-commissioned study. Despite the lower quantity, ship emissions have a large negative impact on people’s health.

Moreover, port activities include the operation of many types of equipment, such as cranes, as well as tens of thousands of barges and trucks moving goods round the clock. They all burn lower-quality diesel and thus contribute to Hong Kong’s and the delta’s poor air quality. There is no doubt that old, polluting lorries are a major contributor to this city’s roadside pollution, which is desperately high.

While long-term predictions are less precise, current government-sponsored estimates show that our city may handle a staggering 40 million teus by 2030. With Shenzhen’s ports also growing quickly – some believe they will grow even faster – there is, in fact, an urgent need to clean up, otherwise the rising tonnage of cargo will become an even bigger public health threat.

Our ship owners know Hong Kong can do better. This is because their ships sail around the world and, in European and North American ports, there have been much greater efforts in recent years to promote green port policies to reduce the public health impact on port cities. Their ships have to improve their environmental performance when they dock at those ports, for example, by using cleaner fuels and reducing speed.

So, ship owners know they can do the same when their ships sail into Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and it would mean lower emissions for the residents of this region.

There is an additional cost component to using cleaner fuel. But if all ships entering a port have to meet the same tighter emissions levels, it is a new, level playing field. The ship owners insist that voluntary measures don’t work because there will always be the temptation for some to save costs by continuing to use dirtier fuel, for example.

Cargo terminal operators in Hong Kong have also started to use cleaner fuels for their equipment as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes. Since they are in fact global port operators, these companies are also affected by international trends. Some of the larger companies that operate various types of harbour craft – tugs and ferries – are also looking at what emissions improvements they can make and are providing key staff with environmental management training. The most difficult stakeholder group is the lorry operators, many of whom feel they are in a sunset industry. But, even here, better driving skills can help with fuel efficiency, leading to lower costs at a time when energy prices are very high.

The government needs to be willing to convene ongoing dialogue with the stakeholders to press home green port policies and work with the marine and port operation sector to explore a range of clean-up options.

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