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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

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