Hong Kong takes an important first step in regulating shipping emissions

Clean air Fuels
Emissions control

In his first annual policy address earlier this year, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced a number of policies to address transportation emissions. Among these was a proposal to require ships to switch to low-sulfur fuel while berthed. Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department will now flesh out details of the plan and submit it to the legislature next session. If enacted, Hong Kong will become the first port in Asia to require that ships use low-sulfur marine diesel fuel in port. So far, ships have only been required to use low-sulfur fuel when they operate in the Emission Control Areas (ECAs) of North America and Europe. The only other Asian port taking any comparable action is Singapore, which has a voluntary fuel-switching program.

This step is critical to improving air quality in Hong Kong. Typical marine diesel, with a sulfur level as high as 35,000 ppm (or 3.5%), is 700 times as polluting as on-road diesel. The impact of such dirty fuel on Hong Kong’s air quality is intensified by the sheer size of the port and its close proximity to residential areas. About 40,000 oceangoing vessels come and go from Hong Kong each year [PDF]. It is the world’s third largest container port, handling more containers than the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, and the Port of New York and New Jersey combined. As a result of such massive activity, and powered by such dirty fuel, shipping accounted for 54% of SOx, 33% of NOx, and 37% of PM concentrations measured in Hong Kong in 2011.

Hong Kong has come a long way since it first began to address the problem of shipping emissions. Leung Chun-ying’s proposal builds upon past voluntary fuel-switching programs that were jointly supported by policy makers, civil society, and industry. In 2011, Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong–based think tank, helped convince major shipping companies to voluntarily use low-sulfur marine fuel (0.5% sulfur, or 5,000 ppm). In 2012, the Hong Kong government joined the initiative and pledged a 50% reduction of port dues to incentivize industry to continue using lower sulfur fuel [pdf]. Now, pressed by industry to level the playing field of voluntary early actors and laggards, the government is moving beyond voluntary measures and incentives to mandate clean fuel use by all oceangoing vessels, an action that would bring tremendous health benefits to the city’s populace.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has also stepped up its efforts to persuade adjacent Guangdong province to establish a low-sulfur zone encompassing port areas in the Pearl River Delta region. Without similar action in Guangdong, there is the risk that ships will simply bypass Hong Kong and visit the neighboring ports of Guangzhou (the world’s fourth largest port) and Shenzhen (thirteenth largest), dealing a blow to Hong Kong’s economy. Shifts in ship traffic to these upstream ports would both increase the public health woes of Guangzhou and Shenzhen and jeopardize Hong Kong’s air quality by backtracking away from the low-sulfur fuel practices of the Fair Winds Charter as the dirtier ships traverse Hong Kong waters [pdf]. A coordinated regional approach is the only way to assure shipping emissions are effectively and substantially reduced.

Hong Kong’s actions are already bearing fruit. During his trip to Hong Kong in July 2012, then President Hu promised to support collaboration [pdf] in reducing marine emissions among Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao. The governor of Guangdong subsequently reaffirmed President Hu’s assurance and committed to working more closely with Hong Kong in slashing shipping emissions, among other things. With closer collaboration between Hong Kong and Guangdong, the prospects for curtailing shipping emissions in the Pearl River Delta seem to be on a definite upswing.