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Friday, May 20, 2016, 15:12

Ship emissions choking the region

By PEARL LIU and BONNIE WANG in Hong Kong
Ship emissions choking the region
Smog enveloping the Hong Kong skyline on Jan 21 last year. Fuel emissions from ships are responsible for a big part of pollution in Asia with Hong Kong one of the worst affected. The city has gradually been shifting to cleaner fuel and is considering tighter regulations.  (AFP)
Smog is a common sight across Asia. It occurs for a variety of reasons that range from sandstorms in China to forest fires in Indonesia and, less noticeably, fuel emissions from ships that travel the region’s busy trade routes and dock in its bustling ports.

Ships burn fuel and emit pollutants in much the same way a car does. Although it is difficult to say exactly how big a percentage of all smog comes from ships, the sheer size of the industry across the region suggests the total amount of pollution is significant and the impact profound.

And nowhere is the problem more serious than in Hong Kong.

The city saw 385 of the 519 deaths directly related to sulfur dioxide from ship emissions in the region, according to a 2013 report by the Civic Exchange, a local think tank. The number of deaths in the inner Pearl River Delta region was 93.

Marine life is also suffering.

“There are short-term effects on marine animals — for example skin irritation — but what is more important is the long-term effect,” said Venus Lun, director of the Shipping Research Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

“The toxic elements can cause cancer and failure in the reproductive system. Also, there will be a reduction in oxygen content in water.”

Lun said that emissions from ships, especially container ships, are also harmful to human beings and, even at relatively low levels, emissions can reach residential areas easily.

“The chemical can cause cancer and diseases in the heart and blood vessels,” she added.

Cargo ships typically use highly polluting bunker fuel, which is comprised of around 3 percent sulfur — much higher than the ultra-low sulfur diesel. One large container ship at sea emits the same amount of sulfur oxide gases as 50 million diesel-burning cars.

Efforts are underway to cut emissions from ships — both container and cruise vessels — by introducing requirements for the use of less-polluting fuels at port. But in Asia, these efforts still fall short of international standards.

Singapore is one of many busy ports in the region that applies international maritime guidelines restricting sulfur emissions to 3.5 percent of fuel volume — as much as 35 times the limit in the United States and Europe.

International agreements such as MARPOL (short for marine pollution) include requirements for emission control areas that would limit the sulfur content of fuels used in port at 0.1 percent.

Currently, there are emission control areas in many international waters, but none in Asia.

The impact on the marine environment from fuel emissions is not as explicit as the impact of, say, oil spills that kill marine life and destroy ecosystems. Still, the damage wrought by sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide only becomes apparent much later.

To deal with Hong Kong’s severe ship fuel emissions problem, and its knock-on effect on human health, new restrictions are under consideration.

According to the latest statistics from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), shipping contributed to 50 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions in the city’s air pollutants inventory.

This is much higher than any other source, including road transport, civil aviation, public electricity generation and other fuel combustion. The numbers and public outcries have led to the Hong Kong government considering tighter regulations.

Last July, Hong Kong made it compulsory for berthing ocean-bound vessels to use fuel with sulfur content no higher than 0.5 percent — still not as strict as limits imposed by the US and EU. Any shipowner caught using the heavy sulfur fuel at berth now risks a jail term and a fine of HK$200,000 ($25,800).

The EPD aims to cut emissions of sulfur by 12 percent and emissions of respirable suspended particles by 6 percent.

“We welcome the new regulations,” said Adonis Yeung, director and founder of Cat Sea, a shipping consultancy, and a veteran shipbroker.

“There has been a buffering period for the industry before the legislation, actually. Most ships have shifted to low-sulfur oil in Hong Kong for the past couple years.

“At first, many were not used to it since low-sulfur fuel was unavailable in the city. But now it is not a problem anymore.”

In 2011, 17 of the world’s major shipping lines signed the Fair Winds Charter, agreeing to use cleaner fuel at port. And the Hong Kong Shipowners Association decided to take that on a voluntary basis, before actually making it mandatory.

For the time being, Hong Kong is the only place in Asia where ships are required by law to use less-polluting fuel while at berth.

The major obstacle to wider use of low-sulfur fuel, say experts, is cost. Spot prices of bunker fuel are usually 20 to 30 percent cheaper than higher-grade marine fuel. This means that a shift to low-sulfur oil comes at a cost for shipowners.

It can cost as much as $2,500 more per day to operate a ship using the more expensive fuel and about $2 million per year to switch from conventional bunker fuel to low-sulfur clean fuel on a shipping line. The recent drops in the price of oil could help to minimize the impact of a shift, however.

“We saw fewer cargos stopping at Hong Kong to refuel when we first voluntarily advocated low-sulfur oil,” said Yeung.

“But ship companies figured out that the increase of the cost is not that much compared to the competitive low charging rate and other incentives provided here. The adjustment period was only around six months and after that we saw more coming back.”

Even with the lessons learned in Hong Kong, the region as a whole has made little progress in terms of cutting fuel emissions. Developed countries like Japan and Singapore — both of which are regarded environmental pioneers — have no such compulsory policies.

According to Lun from the Shipping Research Centre: “Japan’s port does not see as many fleets as in Hong Kong and its air (quality) has not been impacted that seriously by fuel emissions. That might be the reason for such a slow response.”

Currently, only China has rolled out plans to catch up with the international standards. Ships docked in Shanghai, Ningbo, Suzhou and Nantong have been required by law since April 1 to use fuel with sulfur content of less than 0.5 percent.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Transport, all ships operating in areas near the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta and the Bohai Sea — including ocean-going vessels — will be obliged to use fuel containing less than 0.5 percent sulfur by 2019.

“It is a good start, though there are still some problems,” Lun said. “For example, most checks currently are just documentation record checks instead of examining the (ships).”

It is difficult to track ships when they leave the port, she added, and the practice of shifting from low-sulfur to high-sulfur out of the test area cannot be prevented.

Lun hopes that more countries in Asia will join the low-sulfur bloc and that Hong Kong can lower its current 0.5 percent level to 0.1 percent.

“Even though international waters do not belong to one particular country, they are still part of the world and we all have the responsibility to protect them,” she said.

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