Shipping lines lead way to less pollution in the Pearl River Delta

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011
Fair Winds Charter for Hong Kong

On January 1 2011, 18 shipping companies voluntarily, and without a subsidy, began using cleaner fuel while at berth in Hong Kong. Shipping companies estimate that this switch costs from USD500,000-2 million annually. What is behind this commitment?

A growing body of research points to the public health impact of emissions from ships, particularly on coastal and port populations. As a result, government authorities in Europe and North America have begun to regulate to improve air quality.

Several port authorities also incentivize shipping lines to exceed regulation by offering reduction in port dues and other advantages, and encourage the use of a range of other technologies and methods - from scrubbers to slowing down - all in a bid to reduce the toxic emissions from vessels.

One of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce emissions that harm public health is to switch to cleaner fuel. Ordinarily, ships use "bunker" fuel, which has a sulphur content of about 3.5%. EU regulation requires ships to use 0.1% at berth, while only 1% sulphur fuel (down to 0.1% in 2015) can be used in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and English Channel combine to make an "Emission Control Area". Another ECA will come into force out to 200 nautical miles from North American shores in 2012.

This means that ships that call at those ports are already carrying the cleaner fuel on board when they come to Asian ports, and can easily use this fuel when calling at ports here, too.

Eight of the world's 10 busiest container ports are in Asia. More than 10 percent of the world's shipping containers pass through the Pearl River Delta region every year. This region - which includes the ports of Hong Kong (ranked 3rd busiest), Shenzhen (4th) and Guangzhou (7th) - is home to 38 million people. There are few places in the world where emissions from ships affect so many people so directly.

At Civic Exchange, we have been directly engaging with the ship and port community, bringing them together to discuss the best ways to reduce emissions from these sources. In 2008, this "Green Harbours Community" called on the Hong Kong and regional governments to regulate their sectors in a co-ordinated fashion, to ensure a level playing field amongst Hong Kong and other PRD ports. Shipping lines understand that the trends in shipping are for better environmental performance.

So how did the January 2011 voluntary fuel switch come into place? The shipping industry, with Civic Exchange, developed the "Fair Winds Charter", which commits participating lines to use cleaner fuel while at berth in Hong Kong "to the maximum extent possible" until the end of 2012.

This will go some ways in improving the air quality for the three million people who live directly adjacent to the Hong Kong terminals. However, there are limits to what industry can do on its own. The industry recognizes this, and calls on Hong Kong and other regional governments to regulate across the PRD. Ideally, this regulation would begin just as the Fair Winds Charter ends in 2012, if not before.

Other Asian ports are also paying increasing attention to emissions from vessels. In April, Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority pledged S$100million (USD79.6 million) over the next five years towards green shipping. This program includes a 15 percent reduction in port dues for vessels using several specific technologies or cleaner fuels "beyond MARPOL requirements within the port." This is one of the first initiatives in Asia to encourage cleaner shipping.

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