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Maritime and roadside air pollution takes toll on city’s health, drives out talent

By Tommy Lee and Emily Chung

As shoppers and tourists walk out from the air-conditioned comfort of Tsim Sha Tsui’s Habour City mall, they quickly cover their mouths with their hands. Excited tourists race towards the harbour with their cameras ready, only to be left disappointed. All they see is a murky haze and thick, heavy smog instead of Hong Kong’s iconic and impressive skyline of high-rises.

These days, blue skies are a rarity in the city. But air pollution is not just a blight on the scenery, it is harmful to our health and affects our daily life. According to the Hedley Environment Index by the University of Hong Kong, poor air quality accounts for over 3,000 premature deaths per year and incurred HK$39 billion in economic losses in 2012.

Power plants used to be Hong Kong’s biggest polluter but the focus is now shifting to maritime pollution. Marine vessels became the largest source of respirable suspended particulates, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide in 2011, a fact that was recognised in the Chief Executive’s last policy address. Also, a study by the policy think-tank Civic Exchange shows ships at berth accounted for 40 per cent of total emissions within Hong Kong waters.

To deal with the marine pollution, the shipping industry has taken the initiative to regulate the emission from liners. In November 2010, 18 private shipping companies collaborated with Civic Exchange to establish the Fair Winds Charter (FWC). They voluntarily signed up to burn fuel with a sulphur content of no more than 0.5 per cent while at berth in Hong Kong. Currently, most ocean-going vessels employ cheaper and dirtier bunker fuels with sulphur content of between 2.8 per cent and 3.5 per cent.

But not all the industry players have joined the clean-up act. There are around 200 companies operating in Hong Kong, but only 18 of them participated in the FWC.

“Obviously that has come at a high cost,” says David Skov, South China head at Maersk Line, one of the companies which spent over HK$1 million as part of the FWC. “For competitors who are not joining, it means they can reduce their costs compared to us.”

Although there is resistance from individual companies, a major industry group has thrown its weight behind the scheme. In fact, the Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association is a co-founder of the FWC and is lobbying the government to impose regulations requiring the use of cleaner fuel while vessels are at berth in Hong Kong. With such a regulation, all the companies would be competing fairly.

“It is important that we reduce air pollution in Hong Kong because we live here and our children live here,” says Arthur Bowling, the managing director of Hong Kong Shipowners’ Association. While FWC was a first step and very short term, its aim was to inspire the government to take further action, he explains. “With regulation, we can restore the level playing field in the competition. We are very keen for the government to introduce regulation.”

The FWC had been due to expire last December, but the shipping companies agreed to extend the contract through 2013 as the government promised it would introduce regulation. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying vowed in his first policy address in January to enact legislation to enforce the requirement of the fuel switch when ships dock later this year.