Hong Kong air pollution and the deadly impact of shipping and cruise industries
A single cruise liner berthed at a passenger terminal emits as much sulphur dioxide as 25,000 diesel buses. As the waters of the Greater Bay Area get ever busier, is enough being done to clean the emissions of ocean-going vessels?
At weekends, parents push babies in strollers and take family photographs in the attractive roof garden that crowns Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, seemingly oblivious to the smoke belching from whichever ocean liner happens to be berthed alongside.
“It’s rare to have such a nice big space,” says a young mother from West Kowloon, as she enjoys a stroll with her partner and son.
Behind her, a plume of filthy rust-coloured smoke belches from the exhaust funnel of the 335-metre cruise liner World Dream; smoke full of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).
Ocean-going vessels (OGVs) are one of the major sources of air pollution in Hong Kong. Although container ships account for 60 per cent of all OGV polluting emissions, cruise liners – which continue to run their engines to power everything from jacuzzis to galley equipment – typically burn up to 10 times more fuel while berthed than do small container ships; and both of Hong Kong’s cruise terminals – Kai Tak and Ocean Terminal – are close to residential zones, business areas or parks.
While idling, a cruise liner such as the World Dream emits as much SO2 as would 25,000 local diesel buses, estimates Martin Cresswell, technical director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association. That’s almost five times the amount of SO2 emitted by Hong Kong’s entire franchised bus fleet (5,422 vehicles) concentrated on one spot, less than 100 metres from where excited toddlers chase each other among well-manicured flower beds, inhaling deeply as they charge around.
SO2 can cause respiratory problems such as bronchitis and can irritate the nose, throat and lungs. It may cause coughing, wheezing, phlegm and asthma attacks. According to the government’s Centre for Health Protection, not only is there a “strong association” between high pollution and premature deaths due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, exposure to diesel-engine exhaust – most shipping runs on diesel – increases the risk of cancer. In June 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, under the World Health Organisation (WHO), reclassified diesel-engine exhaust as Group 1, “carcinogenic to humans”.
On January 1, the “Fuel for Vessels” regulation was implemented in Hong Kong, requiring vessels in Hong Kong waters to use fuel with a sulphur content of no more than 0.5 per cent (beforehand, 3.5 per cent had been the norm). But, as Cresswell points out, that is still 500 times more sulphur than in the fuel used by local buses (0.001 per cent sulphur content).
While there is consensus that the government’s marine and road sulphur caps have reduced SO2 pollution, the regulations have had less effect on other pollutants. Scientists are particularly concerned about risks from the NOx and PM that are emitted in the exhaust from ships.
NOx gases irritate the mucosa of the eyes, nose, throat and the lower respiratory tract, and long-term exposure can lower a person’s lung function and resistance to respiratory infections, leading to premature death. They also react with sunlight and other chemicals to form ozone (O3 or smog), which can irritate the eyes and trigger life-threatening asthma attacks, increase susceptibility to fatal respiratory infection, even in healthy people, and aggravate respiratory illnesses.
Particulate matter is identified according to aerodynamic diameter. PM10 and PM2.5 micro particles carry toxic matter and can easily be inhaled, penetrating deep into the lungs. In 2016, a study by the University of Hong Kong School for Public Health found that PM2.5 was associated with mortality from all types of cancer. In Hong Kong, 40 per cent of all PM comes from ships.
Air pollution is now a global “public health emergency”, according to the WHO – one that has a “disastrous effect on children” in particular – and dirty air may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body, according to a new global review by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies, exacerbating everything from heart and lung disease to diabetes and dementia, and from liver problems and bladder cancer to brittle bones and damaged skin. Fertility and fetuses are also affected by toxic air, the review found.
Ninety per cent of the world’s population are thought to be affected by filthy air to some degree, but few are being choked by marine pollution to the extent Hongkongers are.
Seven of the 10 biggest ports in the world are in Greater China and three of those seven – Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Nansha (Guangzhou) – are located in the Greater Bay Area, which handles 39 per cent of China’s export cargo. Seven not-quite-so-large ports, such as Zhuhai and Zhongshan, busy river ports such as Foshan and countless fishing vessels, ferries and leisure craft, all add to the fug of emissions blanketing the bay area.
In 2010, Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange undertook the first major study of the health effects of marine emissions in the region. It reported that the annual number of deaths attributable to SO2 emissions in the Pearl River Delta was 519, of which 385 (or 74 per cent) took place in Hong Kong.
The region will witness a constant high momentum of economic growth in the near future; we estimate that fuel consumption of ships will grow by 80 per cent above 2015 levels [by 2030] as a result.
Xiaoli Mao, researcher, International Council on Clean Transportation
“We calculated deaths from SO2 only but the total premature deaths from all shipping-derived air pollution would be at least double that  figure,” says the report’s lead author, Simon Ng Ka-wing, who is now director of policy and research at the Business Environmental Council.
“Most of the ships accessing the Greater Bay Area ports do so via Hong Kong [waters] because it’s more convenient but Hong Kong is suffering and not deriving any economic benefit as they pass through,” says Ng, and the problem will only worsen as the bay area grows.
“The [Greater Pearl River Delta/Greater Bay Area] region will witness a constant high momentum of economic growth in the near future; we estimate that fuel consumption of ships will grow by 80 per cent above 2015 levels [by 2030] as a result,” says Xiaoli Mao, an International Council on Clean Transportation researcher who specialises in vessel pollutant emissions. And burning more fuel means emitting more pollutants.
“We have estimated that in 2030, shipping could account for about 1,100 premature deaths in Hong Kong,” says Mao.
The Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, published on February 18, might offer the 68 million residents of the region a clear economic vision of an integrated innovation powerhouse, but at what cost? The health risks could even trigger an exodus, at least by those who are in a position to leave, which could threaten the very viability of the development plan.
Given the scale of the threat, it’s surprising that vessel emissions are not mentioned in the blueprint; an entire chapter is devoted to “taking forward ecological conservation” but there is no plan for vessel emissions, nor any reference to “air pollution”, “air quality” or even “clean air”.
That does not mean, though, that the authorities in Hong Kong and other Greater Bay Area port cities are not taking the issue of vessel emissions seriously.
Hong Kong’s shipping sector was at the vanguard of emissions-reduction policies in Asia, with the introduction of the voluntary Fair Winds Charter, in 2012. The scheme offered discounts on berthing fees and other incentives to the owners of ships who switched to low-sulphur fuel (less than 0.5 per cent) while moored in Hong Kong. That led to landmark mandatory fuel-switching legislation being introduced on July 1, 2015.
The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) says that its Kwai Chung air-quality-monitoring station, in the vicinity of the container terminals, has recorded an about 60 per cent reduction in average SO2 concentrations in the past three years, compared with 2014.
And the mainland has followed suit. In December 2015, China’s Ministry of Transport began requiring OGVs to use low-sulphur fuel (0.5 per cent) in 11 major ports. On January 1, the ministry extended the restriction into three new domestic emission control areas (DECAs), which reach 12 nautical miles out from the coast and include the Greater Bay Area.
The 0.5 per cent sulphur limit on marine fuels in the DECAs was implemented 12 months ahead of the International Maritime Organisation imposing the same rule worldwide, next year. China was keen to show it was ahead of the emissions game and Hong Kong’s regulation “dovetailed with the control on the mainland”, as the EPD puts it.
Shenzhen and Guangzhou now offer the owners of visiting ships a range of incentives – financial grants to install cleaner equipment, discounted berthing fees, etc – to use shore power, eliminating quayside emissions. Local shipowners are being encouraged to install shore-power connectors or convert their vessels to alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG). Guangzhou is exploring the adoption of electric ferries and cruise liners.
What the [Pearl River Delta] is leading the rest of China and Asia on is using incentives to encourage ships to go beyond regulatory requirements.
Freda Fung, consultant, Green Ports and Shipping Project
Greater Bay Area ports are “progressive in tackling ship emissions”, at least by Asian standards, says Freda Fung, a US-based consultant for the Green Ports and Shipping Project of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and they are working hard on enforcement measures. “What the [Pearl River Delta] is leading the rest of China and Asia on is using incentives to encourage ships to go beyond regulatory requirements,” she says.
Nevertheless, the measures fall well short of those being implemented in leading green ports such as Long Beach, California, and Vancouver, Canada. Both fall within the North American Emission Control Area (ECA), which extends 200 nautical miles from the coastline. Within the ECA, ships are compelled to burn fuel containing no more than 0.1 per cent sulphur – five times cleaner than that stipulated for the Greater Bay Area – and these ports deploy a raft of measures and incentives to encourage the owners of visiting OGVs to commit to emissions that are even cleaner.
In Chinese waters, experts say, ships can skirt the 12 nautical-mile DECAs and while progress has been made in reducing SO2 emissions by forcing ships to switch fuel or install scrubbers, this has only negligible impact on NOx emissions.
The EPD’s 2018 emissions inventory shows that while Hong Kong’s overall NOx levels fell by 39 per cent between 1997 and 2016 – thanks to air pollution policies and the monitoring of industry, power generation and road transport – those from shipping are not declining.
“If left unchecked, shipping’s share of coastal NOx emissions could nearly triple, from 14 per cent to around 38 per cent, by 2030,” says Mao.
NOx emissions are not dictated by fuel type but by engine design, says Cresswell, and there are three broad categories. All new ships are supposed to comply with Tier 3 (the cleanest) technology but this regulation is often circumvented to save money. And Cresswell estimates it costs anything between US$1 million and US$5 million to retrofit a container ship with a selective catalytic reactor to comply with the most stringent NOx standards.
“If there are to be incentives to encourage shipowners to meet Tier 3 NOx standards, they must be big ones,” he says, but not even small incentives are currently offered by Hong Kong or other Greater Bay Area ports.
Furthermore, Hong Kong has no plans to introduce LNG fuel sources for visiting ships or incentives for locally owned vessels to convert to green fuels or install shore-power connections. The city has no plans for green-energy ferries; no plans to introduce speed limits that would reduce fuel consumption in local waters; and no plans to install shore-power facilities in its port or cruise terminals.
A feasibility study approved a shore-power facility for the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in 2015 but it was not implemented. Industry insiders say that the EPD was keen to press ahead but the terminal operators weren’t supportive.
We should be more progressive and more aggressive. People look to Hong Kong as a major seaport and expect us to lead; being green would now be a competitive advantage.
Simon Ng Ka-wing, Business Environment Council
“Our position is that shore power may not have any net emissions benefits versus low-sulphur fuel; it applies only when a ship is at berth; and in the case of Kai Tak, applies only to less than 1 per cent of Hong Kong’s ocean-going vessel traffic,” says Jeff Bent, managing director of Worldwide Cruise Terminals.
Nonetheless, “if [Kai Tak had installed shore power] in 2015, Ocean Terminal would have shore power by now, too,” says Ng, who wrote a report on cruise-ship emissions in Hong Kong in 2013.
Having taken the lead on vessel emissions, Hong Kong now appears passive, even though the city has the most to gain in terms of lives saved.
“We should be more progressive and more aggressive,” says Ng. “People look to Hong Kong as a major seaport and expect us to lead; being green would now be a competitive advantage.”