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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.

The Demise of the Fair Winds Charter

Hong Kong’s voluntary Fair Winds Charter aimed at reducing air emissions in port officially expired at the end of the year. It is unlikely to be renewed.

Regulations mandating emission control measures in port, and thus negating the need for the Charter, are late, but still eagerly anticipated. For Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association (HKSA), they will create a fair competitive environment that doesn’t penalize shipowners making an effort to reduce SOx emissions.

The legislation for Hong Kong was supposed to be ready for January 1,” says Bowring. “The container industry especially is highly competitive, and if you’ve got carriers paying $2 million more each year for the pleasure of switching fuel, they’re not going to last long in business. So it’s important to maintain a level playing field between the carriers in Hong Kong. That’s why we want the legislation, but we do also want the initiative to spread up into the rest of the Pearl River delta to keep the playing field level for Hong Kong as a port.”

The Charter, reaffirmed for another year in February 2014, involves many of Hong Kong’s leading carriers and cruise liners and was initially brought about through the leadership of OOCL and Maersk. It is jointly sponsored by the HKSA and the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association.

“The Hong Kong Shipowners Association and the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association have for many years been deeply involved in the reduction of emissions from shipping, both in global negotiations and in local voluntary efforts. Locally, the Fair Winds Charter was developed by the industry in 2010, taking effect from 2011, as the world’s only truly voluntary scheme to reduce shipping emissions at berth and at anchor.”

In 2012, the charter was partially supported by the government with a three-year incentive scheme that means owners can claim around 40 percent of the cost of switching fuel.

Over time the shipping lines signed up to the charter have changed. “Some of the original members are no longer doing it because it’s made them too uncompetitive. They are waiting for the legislation,” says Bowring.

However, there have been some new companies coming in and some taking advantage of the arrangement without publically supporting the charter. “There is a fair amount of reluctance to be identified publically supporting the voluntary emissions cut. One reason for that, we believe, is because some carriers are concerned that if they are shown publically to be supporting Hong Kong, then other places might well demand they do the same thing, and that could really affect their bottom line tremendously.”

An infographic on the back page of the South China Morning Post at the end of last year sparked renewed focus on the shipping industry’s air emissions. Titled “A Heavy Toll” the infographic showed that approximately 50 percent of Hong Kong’s SOx emissions, 32 percent of NOx emissions and 37 percent of particulate matter came from the marine industry in 2012. The statistics may give the impression that the shipping industry is not aware of the effect of emissions on human health and is not doing anything to reduce them. This is not the case, Bowring says.

The industry fully supports, and is working with, the government in the development of the new regulation, he says. He cites statistics gathered last year that indicate that while only 13 percent of carriers were switching fuel, sulfur emissions around the port area were reduced by 8 percent.

In October last year, nearby Shenzhen in mainland China stated its intention to follow Hong Kong’s voluntary efforts with an incentive scheme, and to work with Hong Kong towards an application to the IMO by 2018 to create an emission control area for the Pearl River Delta.

China is home to seven of the world’s busiest container terminals, and Shenzhen became the third largest container port in the world in 2013. Most of the ocean-going vessels calling at Shenzhen burn heavy fuel oil. It is estimated that about 66 per cent of Shenzhen’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 14 per cent of nitrogen oxide, 6 per cent of fine particulates come from port and ship sources.

Shenzhen is planning to take the Hong Kong model a step further. It will refund 100 percent of the extra fuel costs if 0.1 percent or less sulfur fuel is burnt and 75 percent if it is less than 0.5 percent. However, the government is still developing the necessary framework to achieve these incentives.

It also plans to promote the use of shoreside power. Unlike Hong Kong, this can be fairly easily achieved as a lot of the terminals are relatively new, and many have been set up with cold ironing facilities.

There is some talk of making shoreside power available in Hong Kong too.

“Hong Kong’s efforts to reduce emissions from shipping are well recognized and appreciated by Beijing, and we understand that Shanghai is considering adopting emission control incentives, initially based on Hong Kong’s voluntary scheme, for the Yangtze River Delta,” says Bowring, but he believes countries further afield are also watching Hong Kong with interest.

He sees a significant difference between the regulations being developed in Hong Kong and those in, for example, Europe. In Europe, there is a fine attached to not switching to low sulfur fuels in designated areas. It’s not a particularly heavy fine, says Bowring, and may not provide a strong financial incentive for trying to avoid the system.

In contrast, the new regulations being developed for Hong Kong make deliberate non-compliance a criminal act for both the carrier and the ship’s master. A convicted master could face six months in jail and a $200,000 fine.

“We think it is a very effective sanction, and it is one that Europe is quite interested in,” says Bowring.

Meanwhile, the voluntary Charter continues on a business-as-usual basis, until the legislation is implemented. This is anticipated to be in the next six months.

“Shipping carries more than 90 per cent of world trade and, on a ton-km basis, is the most efficient and environmentally friendly form of transport. It is our intention to continue to reduce the environmental footprint of this essential industry sector,” says Bowring.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.

Daily Mail: How 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world

from Fred Pearce of the Daily Mail:

Award-winning science writer Fred Pearce – environmental consultant to New Scientist and author of Confessions Of An Eco Sinner – reveals that the super-ships that keep the West in everything from Christmas gifts to computers pump out killer chemicals linked to thousands of deaths because of the filthy fuel they use.

We’ve all noticed it. The filthy black smoke kicked out by funnels on cross-Channel ferries, cruise liners, container ships, oil tankers and even tugboats.

It looks foul, and leaves a brown haze across ports and shipping lanes. But what hasn’t been clear until now is that it is also a major killer, probably causing thousands of deaths in Britain alone.

As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.

Because of their colossal engines, each as heavy as a small ship, these super-vessels use as much fuel as small power stations.

But, unlike power stations or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel: the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.

Thanks to decisions taken in London by the body that polices world shipping, this pollution could kill as many as a million more people in the coming decade – even though a simple change in the rules could stop it.

There are now an estimated 100,000 ships on the seas, and the fleet is growing fast as goods are ferried in vast quantities from Asian industrial powerhouses to consumers in Europe and North America.

The recession has barely dented the trade. This Christmas, most of our presents will have come by super-ship from the Far East; ships such as the Emma Maersk and her seven sisters Evelyn, Eugen, Estelle, Ebba, Eleonora, Elly and Edith Maersk.

Each is a quarter of a mile long and can carry up to 14,000 full-size containers on their regular routes from China to Europe.

Emma – dubbed SS Santa by the media – brought Christmas presents to Europe in October and is now en route from Algeciras in Spain to Yantian in southern China, carrying containers full of our waste paper, plastic and electronics for recycling.

But it burns marine heavy fuel, or ‘bunker fuel’, which leaves behind a trail of potentially lethal chemicals: sulphur and smoke that have been linked to breathing problems, inflammation, cancer and heart disease.

James Corbett, of the University of Delaware, is an authority on ship emissions. He calculates a worldwide death toll of about 64,000 a year, of which 27,000 are in Europe. Britain is one of the worst-hit countries, with about 2,000 deaths from funnel fumes. Corbett predicts the global figure will rise to 87,000 deaths a year by 2012.

Part of the blame for this international scandal lies close to home.

In London, on the south bank of the Thames looking across at the Houses of Parliament, is the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that polices the world’s shipping.

For decades, the IMO has rebuffed calls to clean up ship pollution. As a result, while it has long since been illegal to belch black, sulphur-laden smoke from power-station chimneys or lorry exhausts, shipping has kept its licence to pollute.

For 31 years, the IMO has operated a policy agreed by the 169 governments that make up the organisation which allows most ships to burn bunker fuel.

Christian Eyde Moller, boss of the DK shipping company in Rotterdam, recently described this as ‘just waste oil, basically what is left over after all the cleaner fuels have been extracted from crude oil. It’s tar, the same as asphalt. It’s the cheapest and dirtiest fuel in the world’.

Bunker fuel is also thick with sulphur. IMO rules allow ships to burn fuel containing up to 4.5 per cent sulphur. That is 4,500 times more than is allowed in car fuel in
the European Union. The sulphur comes out of ship funnels as tiny particles, and it is these that get deep into lungs.

Thanks to the IMO’s rules, the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulphur in a year – the same as 50million typical cars, each emitting an average of 100 grams of sulphur a year.

With an estimated 800million cars driving around the planet, that means 16 super-ships can emit as much sulphur as the world fleet of cars.


The Fair Winds Charter 2013

Download (PDF, 321KB)

CNN: Ship emissions blamed for worsening pollution in Hong Kong

by Grigory Kravtsov, reporting for CNN:

Smog is a common sight in Hong Kong, with the amount of polluted days increasing by 28 percent to 303 so far this year.

Hong Kongers would be quick to point the finger at Chinese factories across the border. Yet, research is increasingly indicating that the problem is much more localized, coming from emissions produced by shipping.

What we know in Hong Kong is that up to 50% of pollution [locally produced] sources come from marine vessels,” said Gina McCarthy, administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Smog levels within the city of over 7 million reached hazardous levels earlier this week, with particles in one urban area, Sham Shui Po hitting a PM2.5, hitting 91.7 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Anything above 71 is classified as “very dangerous” according to the World Health Organization guidelines.

Maritime pollution in Hong Kong is blamed for the most sulfur dioxide-related deaths within the region. According to a recent report jointly compiled by the Civic Exchange and The University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong saw 385 deaths caused by the hazardous chemical, for which shipping is to blame.

The city lacks regulations in tackling maritime pollution, as there is no legislation or requirements for shipping companies to switch to cleaner fuel when entering Hong Kong waters.


Lack of Emissions Control Area in HK waters will continue to leave Hong Kong blanketed in smog

Less than a week after favourable weather cleared the skies of Hong Kong, the city is covered again in particles. It has become a common refrain for city officials to sing of their achievements in switching out diesel engines from the roads, and after that for Legco members to debate to no end as to how (un)successful their measures have been in improving the city’s air quality.

It is also commonly known, albeit with less attention paid, that cargo ships – especially ocean-going vessels – are a major contributor to pollutants as they move through the waters of Hong Kong. In addition to Hong Kong’s own Kwai Chung terminal, ships docking at Shenzhen’s Yantian and Shekou terminals pass through channels east and west of Hong Kong respectively, meaning Hong Kong bears the brunt of the emissions whichever way the prevailing winds blow.

Thus far, Hong Kong’s policymakers have only implemented a weak policy – incentivising ships docking at Kwai Chung to switch to cleaner fuels when moving in Hong Kong, transitioning into a compulsory requirement by Sep 2014. Meanwhile, there are already complaints that this would ‘hurt competitiveness’ of the Kwai Chung terminal in comparison with Shenzhen’s terminals (of which Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa, and the Wharf, are shareholders).

The situation can be greatly improved if Hong Kong officials can push for the implementation of an Emissions Control Area, which will effectively make the same clean fuel requirements for Shenzhen’s terminals. This may call for cross-border co-operation between policymakers in order for the policy to be strictly enforced, but if Hong Kong officials wish to display some real work done, there can be no better opportunity.

Clear The Air has prepared a brief document on this issue.