Skip to main content

Ship emissions blamed for worsening pollution in Hong Kong

By Grigory Kravtsov, for CNN
updated 4:14 AM EST, Fri December 20, 2013
A tourist walks past a billboard featuring a backdrop of the city skyline with a clear sky on October 25 in Hong Kong.
A tourist walks past a billboard featuring a backdrop of the city skyline with a clear sky on October 25 in Hong Kong.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Localized pollution from ships becoming a major contributor towards the city's smoggy skyline
  • Government is set to introduce legislation on shipping emissions from 2014
  • Hong Kong has the most fatalities from sulfur emissions in the Pearl River Delta Region, according to a recent study

(CNN) -- Smog is a common sight in Hong Kong, with the amount of polluted days increasing by 28 percent to 303 so far this year.

Hong Kongers would be quick to point the finger at Chinese factories across the border. Yet, research is increasingly indicating that the problem is much more localized, coming from emissions produced by shipping.

"What we know in Hong Kong is that up to 50% of pollution [locally produced] sources come from marine vessels," said Gina McCarthy, administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Smog levels within the city of over 7 million reached hazardous levels earlier this week, with particles in one urban area, Sham Shui Po hitting a PM2.5, hitting 91.7 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Anything above 71 is classified as "very dangerous" according to the World Health Organization guidelines.

Maritime pollution in Hong Kong is blamed for the most sulfur dioxide-related deaths within the region. According to a recent report jointly compiled by the Civic Exchange and The University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong saw 385 deaths caused by the hazardous chemical, for which shipping is to blame.

Cutting through China's haze

The city lacks regulations in tackling maritime pollution, as there is no legislation or requirements for shipping companies to switch to cleaner fuel when entering Hong Kong waters.

Wong Chit-ming, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health noted the Asian hub would continue to see a growth in the amount of pollution from container ships under current lack of regulations. He linked this to an ever-increasing flow of marine traffic coming through the city.

However, the government is slowly starting to become more aware of the situation, said Simon Ng Ka-wing, head of transport and sustainability research at Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong thinktank that advises the government on policy.

"In the past we pointed fingers to Guangdong [the province neighboring Hong Kong] saying it is the only reason we suffer from air pollution without knowing that there is locally produced pollution. But now we are getting a clear picture that we can clean up quicker locally."

The city is lagging behind many other hubs in the world such as those within Europe and North America, which have regulations requiring vessels to switch to cleaner emitting fuel, an initiative known as the Emission Control Area (ECA).

Marine vessels in Hong Kong can burn cheaper and more hazardous 3.5% sulfur oil, while in various ECA zones, vessels cannot exceed 0.5 percent. New regulations by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency that is responsible for the safety of maritime vessels and works to prevent pollution from ships, is looking into forcing vessels to burn no more than 0.5 percent of sulfur by 2020. This applies to bigger container and cruise ships, whilst smaller local craft are dealt with under other regulation.

Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association said that the shipping industry has been extremely proactive in switching to cleaner fuels.

"In 2010, after discussion and debate, 16 carriers and cruise lines came together in the world's only truly voluntary commitment to change to a cleaner fuel when at berth or at anchor in Hong Kong," he said.

That agreement, called the Fair Winds Charter cuts port charges by as much as 50% for those sea vessels that switch to cleaner emitting fuels.

"The Fair Winds Charter was put in place for two years, 2011 and 2012, to show government that the industry could switch fuel and that incentive followed by regulation would be possible," Bowring said.

It was extended until the end of 2013, but has an unclear future. A decision on whether to expand it into 2014 is expected later this month.

The government is also due to pass legislation next year that will force all marine traffic to comply with more environmentally friendly fuels and introduce an emissions control zone in the territory's waters.

Without urgent regulations, Hong Kong citizens are expected to suffer both short-term and longer-term health effects, such as numerous cancers, putting a burden on the local health system.

"Excess hospitalization, extra treatment, we can translate to money value," said Wong Chit-ming, associate professor at The University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health. "It justifies the government to implement measures to improve the air."

The government is attempting to make the public aware of the adverse health affects that the pollution causes by replacing the 18-year-old air pollution index with an air quality health index from December 30.

In a recent report, published by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, introducing an emissions control zone can cut sulfur dioxide emissions in the Pearl River Delta region by as much as 95%.

"What Hong Kong can probably benefit from is a renewed sense of urgency in addressing this issue," said Peter Levesque, American Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong Vice Chairman. "I think in general, Hong Kong understands that it can take the lead by doing what it can to fix the problems here and work with South China to have a regional solution."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
updated 4:12 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT