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Natural partnership

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Reducing highly toxic emissions from ships must be a key part of the government’s clean-air strategy. Right now, shipping emissions are regarded as a problem that can wait. Officials have not given this a higher priority because they take a total-quantity approach rather than a public health one. Total emissions from power plants and road vehicles are many times higher than that from ships. But this approach misses the high toxicity of bunker fuel. Data from the maritime industry shows that the 15 biggest ships in the world today may emit the same amount of pollution as all the cars in the world.

Imagine a large container ship coming into Kwai Chung terminal. It stays there for, say, a day to load and unload cargo. While the ship is docked, it is still burning bunker fuel to generate electricity. Under international agreements, oceangoing vessels can burn bunker fuel with up to 4.5 per cent sulphur content, although the average is about 3 per cent. This is extremely high compared to the 0.005 per cent sulphur content of ultra-low sulphur diesel that road vehicles burn in Hong Kong. Kwai Chung is close to the homes and workplaces of millions of people. Even light breezes can blow the emissions to heavily populated areas.

The issue, then, is straightforward. The government must multitask – while it prepares plans to drive down power and vehicular emissions, it must at the same time deal with ships. So far, officials have only proposed to deal with local vessels. These are the smaller vessels operating in local waters, such as pleasure boats, ferries, hydrofoils and barges. They are already burning much cleaner fuels, with 0.5 per cent sulphur content. The government is proposing that all local vessels should use ultra-low sulphur diesel, which will help. A refinement to this proposal is to set a limit on emissions and allow owners to use other means to achieve the same emission levels as ultra-low sulphur diesel, since other technology may be able to achieve the same results.

The problem remains that oceangoing vessels are not included in this proposal and they are the heavy polluters burning bunker fuel. Let’s face facts. The container ports of Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou handle about 12 per cent of the global container traffic. This is an awful lot for a small body of water. Hong Kong and Shenzhen are, in fact, sister ports because of their proximity, and also because they share essentially the same investors and operators. And even if ships are heading for Shenzhen, many pass through Hong Kong waters and their emissions affect our residents.

In fact, all major port cities and cross-jurisdiction regions face the same problems. International maritime agreements on emissions have moved quite slowly. For example, oceangoing ships will only have to meet fuel standards with 3.5 per cent sulphur content by 2012, and perhaps 0.5 per cent by 2020. This is far too slow, so port authorities are taking the initiative to clean up marine emissions and related container-truck pollution.

The US ports of Seattle and Tacoma and their neighbouring Canadian port of Vancouver have formed an extensive partnership to maintain clean waterways and air quality. Its members include port operators, local environmental authorities and public health experts. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are also co-operating to find solutions that include using financial incentives for ships to burn cleaner fuel as they enter Californian waters. European ports are exploring similar initiatives.

Hong Kong and Shenzhen are ideal partners to devise green port policies. The public should insist that it becomes part of the government’s push to work with Guangdong to improve air quality, and also make it an important element of cross-border collaboration. The good news is that many ship owners, liners and terminal operators are ready to act because their ships and overseas operations have already been forced to clean up. They know the global trend. The authorities here need to demand action so there is a level playing field. In other words, discriminate against the laggards, not those who can lead.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chairperson of the Clean Air Network and chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange. cloh@civic-exchange.org

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