Low-sulphur diesel fuel for ships in Hong Kong should be compulsory

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2012, 2:19am

From today shipowners and operators can claim a 50 per cent reduction in port facility and light dues for switching to low-sulphur diesel while their vessels are docked in Hong Kong. The potential sacrifice of port revenue is a drop in the harbour when you consider that a five-year study attributes at least 519 deaths a year in the Pearl River Delta region, including 385 in Hong Kong, directly to sulphur dioxide emissions from ships, not counting deaths from the long-term health effects of exposure.

Making it compulsory to use low-sulphur fuel would have been a better option, as other major ports have found. Failing that, the three-year incentive programme is one government giveaway that few would object to, since it would save lives and help contain shipping costs. It follows the launch in 2010 of a purely voluntary scheme by 17 shipping lines that expires soon.

Given the co-operation so far of owners, operators and agents, it seems scarcely believable that the new scheme could be scuttled by government red tape, such as applying afresh for the subsidy each time a vessel calls here, and lodging certified documents including engine log books by specific deadlines after a ship has departed. A shipowners' spokesman asks whether they should pay money to comply with bureaucratic and sometimes impossible procedures to qualify for a subsidy that covers only part of the cost of the fuel switch.

While ship emissions are responsible for only 18 per cent of sulphur dioxide in the city's air, they reach residential areas easily because they are released at a lower level. Think tank Civic Exchange estimates 3.8 million people are at risk of excessive exposure. Untangling the red tape seems like a case that should be delegated to new environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai, founder of think tank Civic Exchange, which conducted the five-year study of health effects jointly with the University of Hong Kong and the University of Science and Technology. Hopefully she can convince the government to make the fuel switch mandatory rather than risk losing shipowners' co-operation with a half-baked solution.