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Marine Pollution Regulations

Danger at sea – Calls are growing to tighten regulation of the world’s shipping fleet, a major source of pollution

Michael Richardson
Jan 08, 2008

Often steaming in international waters far from land, the world’s fleet of ocean-going ships has largely evaded scrutiny as a source of harmful air pollution and global warming emissions. But this lack of regulation is about to change as the fleet, which carries 90 per cent of trade, expands rapidly and pressure increases to impose tighter fuel standards, and others, on the trillion-dollar industry.

Calls are also growing louder to include both the shipping and aviation industries in any new international deal to cut greenhouse emissions. Neither are covered by the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The cleanup proposals are being closely watched by major ports like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore because they will add substantially to business costs. They could give other maritime centres a competitive advantage unless the new controls are adopted and enforced by all trading nations.

A report last month by four US environmental groups found that only six countries emitted more carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, than the world’s fleet of 60,000 ships. It said that, each year, the fleet released between 600 million and 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, about the same as the 130 million cars on US roads.

However, shipping industry officials say it is difficult to measure carbon dioxide pollution from the global fleet and that some estimates are exaggerated. A figure frequently cited by the industry is a report to the British government by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern. It concluded that carbon dioxide emissions from ships contributed just 2 per cent to the global total in 2000, compared with 15 per cent from the transport sector as a whole. Critics insist that the level is substantially higher and fails to take account of the rapid expansion of seaborne trade, which has surged 50 per cent in the past 15 years.

Ships are also a source of non-carbon-dioxide pollution. The International Council on Clean Transportation, made up of transport and air quality officials from a wide range of states, reported last year that seagoing ships produced more sulfur dioxide than all the world’s cars, trucks and buses combined. The council’s study showed that the sulfur content of marine bunker fuel is far greater than highway diesel fuel. Bunker fuel is significantly cheaper than road fuel.

Environmental groups say that ships account for between 8 per cent and 10 per cent of sulfur emissions from all types of fossil fuel and also contribute nearly 30 per cent of global releases of nitrogen oxides. These emissions harm human health, cause acid rain and deplete the ozone layer.

Critics say that another pollutant from ships – black carbon, or soot – can warm the atmosphere many times more than the same amount of carbon dioxide.

In November, reacting to public concern about pollution from ships, the European Commission called on the International Maritime Organisation, the United Nations agency responsible for regulating shipping and marine pollution, to do more to help combat climate change. The IMO set up a scientific group in July to study the issue. The group included experts from major shipping and trading nations, including China, Japan and Singapore, as well as non-governmental organisations. Their report is due to be presented at an IMO meeting in London next month.

Any proposals to tighten fuel standards, reduce funnel exhaust gases and use only shore-based electric power when in port would be included as amendments to global marine pollution laws under the IMO’s Marpol Convention. They could be adopted as early as October and come into force 16 months later.

Some ship owners and government officials have cautioned the industry to take a conservative approach to pollution cuts because of the potential costs involved. But Tony Mason, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, warned that if governments and industry failed to come up with improved standards by the end of this year, “we shall see a serious disenchantment with the IMO process and a proliferation of local regulations, led in all probability by the EU and the US”.

National and regional regulation has already begun in America and Europe. For example, the US House of Representatives approved legislation in March to allow the coastguard and Environmental Protection Agency to enforce emission limits on thousands of domestic and foreign-flagged ships that enter US waters each year.

If the IMO fails to come up with credible and enforceable global standards, sea-based transport will be saddled with a patchwork quilt of regulation. This will slow shipping and maritime trade, and increase its cost.

Michael Richardson is visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment.

Losing Sight of Hong Kong's Harbour

Losing Sight of Hong Kong’s Harbour

Douglas Woodring, Associate, Civic Exchange pens his second article for Britain in Hong Kong on the burning issue of Hong Kong’s worsening air pollution. He brings our attention, this time, to local marine emissions and the negative impacts they are having on our air quality.

Impact of Marine Emissions

Hong Kong’s greatest asset is its harbour, yet as we all know, this has become harder and harder to appreciate with clarity as air pollution appears to be steadily on the increase. We often focus on vehicle, power plant and industrial emissions as the culprits, but what about marine emissions? What impact does living next to two of the world’s top four busiest ports have on our air quality, and what is being done about it?

Unfortunately, the answer is that port traffic is a significant contributor to the deterioration of our air quality, and that a lot more can be done to make improvements. Based on transportation figures, in 2004, more than 225,000 vessels arrived in Hong Kong. Of them, 16% (36,000) were ocean going vessels and 84% (190,000) were river vessels (38% ferries and 62% cargo vessels). As it stands today, marine air pollution is not regulated within the Air Pollution Control Ordinance which is the main regulatory control mechanism for emissions within Hong Kong.

Marine emissions in Hong Kong are important for two reasons. Firstly, they are one of the only emission sources whose emissions continue to increase year on year, and secondly, although the absolute amount of marine emissions are less than motor vehicles, are emitted in the heart of Victoria Harbour and are released close to the ground level and within a few kilometers of the densely populated Kowloon peninsula. They pose as serious health risk. In fact, Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Sulphur Dioxides (SO2) have both been on the constant increase in Hong Kong since 1990, with both almost doubling in the past 10 years. Each of these pollutants are contributors to the haze and grey skies that are seen in our city, with NOx being a source of ozone creation which is widely considered to be dangerous in terms of health and environmental impacts. A recent study by CLSA and Civic Exchange has shown that Hong Kong’s hazy days have increased from less than 10 per month in 1990, to over 25 per month in 2004.

Sulphur Oxides

While the extent of the influence of PRD regional based pollution has been long known, the influence of local marine sources on local SO2 levels is relatively new information which contributes to the mounting concerns over marine emissions. Ocean going cargo vessels are legally able to use high sulphur fuels with sulphur content up to 4.5%, which contrasts with current requirements and availability of road vehicle fuel in Hong Kong which is 0.005% for motor diesel and petrol/gasoline. Marine fuels are often called Heavy Oil or Bunker Fuel, and these contain high amounts of sulphur which forms SO2 upon combustion, along with substantial amounts of elemental-carbon, nickel and vanadium, all which have significant health implications for affected populations. To put this all into perspective, recent studies show that marine vessels around Kwai Chung are responsible for 36% of total SO2 concentrations measured at the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department’s air quality measuring stations. Surprisingly, local power plants were only responsible for 7% of total SO2 concentrations at the same stations. Furthermore, marine vessels burning high sulphur fuel appear to be the major source of SO2 in specific locations within the heart of the urban area. To further show the severity of marine vessels’ contribution to sulphur oxides (SOx), ships anchoring at Tokyo’s port emit eight times more SOx per year than the total amount emitted by autos in six Tokyo Wards along the bay.

An Overlooked Problem?

In some aspects, marine pollution has been overlooked as a problem source, partly because marine vessels do not operate on land where the human population moves about each day. Similarly, there are various local and international bodies that govern marine transport, and because ocean going vessels move from port to port, a higher level of international cooperation and understanding of these problems is necessary in order to effectuate a policy on emissions which can be widely accepted, adopted and monitored.

Currently, most of the shipping industry (for ocean going vessels) feels that shipping regulation should be undertaken and enforced uniformly on an international basis through the United Nation’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Regulatory issues in the PRD then involve consideration of three different jurisdictions: (i) Hong Kong’s, (ii) Mainland China’s, and (iii) the international jurisdiction of the IMO. International pollution controls are primarily implemented through the MARPOL Convention, of which Annex VI “Prevention of air pollution from ships” came into force in May 2005. This sets limits on SO2 and NOx emissions, and prohibits deliberate emissions of ozone depleting substances. Currently 27 countries have ratified Annex VI, representing 64% of the world’s tonnage in ships. Hong Kong and China have yet to ratify Annex VI, with only Japan and Singapore complying with this annex within Asia. Hong Kong authorities have stated that they expect to ratify Annex VI within 2006 and in any event their current regulations are largely compliant with its requirements.

The IMO also enables regions to be declared Sulphur Emission Control Areas (SECA). To date there are two SECAs in the world which require ships to reduce SOx emissions within their boundaries through using cleaner fuels within those zones. Other emission reductions are also being achieved, largely in the US and European Union, through the reduction of vessel speeds within harbours, changing to cleaner fuels while operating auxiliary engines when approaching harbour, retrofitting ships with emission reduction equipment and the use of shore-side power while docked at port. It is unlikely that Hong Kong will be able to establish a SECA under the IMO regulations. This is largely because in order to achieve SECA status, Hong Kong and Mainland China, being two adjoining countries, must jointly apply and each must have already ratified Annex VI. Moreover, each must have individually taken strong measures nationally to reduce marine emissions before SECA status is granted. Neither Hong Kong or the Mainland appears to have made any effort thus far to reduce marine emissions at its increasingly busy ports, with one commentator saying that “the [Chinese] government has made great efforts to reduce emissions from stationary sources and vehicle exhaust; however, emissions from ships are usually neglected.”

What Can We Do?

What then, can Hong Kong do to improve this situation within our jurisdiction and the PRD? Examples from the U.S. and Europe have shown that two different approaches are being explored and implemented: (i) the use of incentives for complying vessels in the form of reduced fees, shorter waiting time for dock space, and reduced inspection times, and (ii) taxation, differentiated dues and other penalties for failing to comply. In some cases, incentives given by individual ports have shown to be just as effective in cleaning up emissions as regulations handed down from national or supra-national bodies. Use of clean vehicles and equipment at the port itself must also be a coherent part of emission reduction policy.

Hong Kong’s high level of river traffic should also be a main focal point for making improvements, as this accounts for 84% of our marine traffic. In this case, close coordination and cooperation from the PRD will need to be put into place. Cleaner fuels and shore-based power are two of the most likely options for progress, but this then runs into issues relating to fuel policy and availability in the PRD which will be covered in the next article in this series.

In summary, marine pollution is an increasingly worrying contributor to our local air quality problems, and one which is having a clear health impact on the entire population of Kowloon. International protection through the designation of a SECA will be difficult without the support of many countries/ports in the region, and Asia is lagging behind other regions in respect to this type of coordinated response to marine emissions. Hong Kong’s main target for improvement should therefore be aimed at local port policies (Hong Kong and Shenzhen), and programmes to address the use of fuel and/or emission standards on the vessels that constitute the high volume of river traffic within the PRD. Lack of action in the marine industry will contradict any improvements that may be made in land-based emission improvements.

This is the second article in a four-part series on Hong Kong’s air pollution. The next piece will focus on fuel options in the Pearl River Delta, and how that can impact our situation in Hong Kong.

Further information on shipping emission reduction options is available in Civic Exchange’s recently released report “Marine Emission Reduction Options for Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta”, March 2006, available at

Marine Pollution – Questions from LegCo

Marine Pollution – Questions from LegCo:

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Section 50 of the Shipping and Port Control Ordinance (Cap. 313) stipulates that no vessel in the waters of Hong Kong shall emit smoke in such quantity as to be a nuisance, except in circumstances affecting the safety of life or of the vessel. Regarding the emissions from vessels, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of the respective numbers of complaints received by the authorities concerned about emission of smoke from vessels, verbal warnings issued to and prosecutions instituted against the shipowners concerned by the Marine Department, and convictions in the past three years;

(b) whether it has assessed the adequacy of the current arrangement whereby law enforcement actions are taken by the Marine Department only; whether it will consider empowering the Environmental Protection Department to take law enforcement actions in this respect, particularly in cases involving excessive smoke emitted from the vessels berthing at the piers along both sides of the Victoria Harbour (for example, the Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui and piers for inner harbour and outlying island services);

(c) given that the above provision only targets the quantity of smoke emitted from vessels and does not specify limits on the concentrations of various harmful substances contained in the smoke, whether it will consider amending the legislation to specify the emission standards applicable to vessels;

(d) whether it has conducted tests on the concentrations of harmful substances in the emissions from vessels and assessed their impact on public health and the air quality; and

(e) whether it will draw up measures to encourage the installation of emission reduction devices in vessels?