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Hong Kong Port Worst Source of Pollution

Smoke on the water

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

Christine Loh – Updated on Jun 19, 2008 – SCMP

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.

Christine Loh is chief executive of the non-profit think-tank Civic Exchange, which published the report Green Harbours: Hong Kong & Shenzhen this week

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