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Clean fuel rebate can only be a start

SCMP – 10 April 2012

With Hong Kong’s air quality so bad and the ships using our port significant emitter of a key pollutant, sulphur dioxide, our government should be leading the push for clean fuel. Hong Kong is late to the party, though lawmakers have recently approved a rebate to shipping companies operating vessels that are already voluntarily burning low-sulphur fuel. The amount is substantial, but firms that are not participating will not be covered, and high oil prices do not guarantee continuing compliance.The voluntary approach is no way to go about making our air safe. Only laws will assure that. Our worsening roadside air pollution plainly shows the failings of a strategy that mixes incentives with voluntary action for the companies responsible for the biggest polluters – power stations and old diesel buses and trucks. Requiring that electricity producers no longer burn coal and that new vehicles be purchased would, at a stroke, make levels acceptable. As studies have shown, our health is suffering.

Most container ships do not burn high-quality marine diesel and are instead powered by staggeringly polluting bunker fuel. With a sulphur content of between 2.8 and 4.5 per cent, a single vessel using it can in an hour produce as much pollution as 350,000 cars. Research by the think tank Civic Exchange estimates that 3.8 million people are at risk of exposure to excessive levels of emissions of pollutants from shipping and the port at Kwai Chung. Mindful of an international push and laws elsewhere, 17 shipping companies launched the two-year Fair Winds Charter at the start of last year to voluntarily switch to fuel with a sulphur content of 0.5 per cent or less while berthed here.

Authorities have to put the rebate in place promptly, but that has to be only the start. Pressing all vessels in our waters to use clean fuel is just as important. Ultimately, though, as with increasing numbers of ports elsewhere, they will have to turn to laws.

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