The government is determined to set up an emissions control area for ships in the Pearl River Delta, environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai said yesterday.
It would be the first such region in Asia and only the third in the world.
It follows figures released last month by Civic Exchange, a think tank founded by Loh, which showed that within the Pearl River Delta region, Hongkongers account for 75 per cent of deaths attributed to sulphur dioxide in ships' emissions. It said those deaths could be reduced by 91 per cent by setting up an emissions control zone.
The move would mean all ocean-going vessels entering the zone would have to switch to low sulphur fuel. Loh said the government was already discussing with the Guangdong government rules for the use of environmentally friendly fuel in port.
She told a meeting yesterday of the Legislative Council's environment committee that the Environment Bureau was "very determined" to set up an emissions control zone. She offered no timetable but hoped to make "take a big step" towards realising the goal in the current adminstration's five-year term.
"Our long-term goal of setting up a low-emission area is very clear," Loh said. "Don't underestimate our determination, but at the same time don't underestimate the difficulties."
Loh said the city had to co-operate with other authorities to ensure a level playing field with other ports. The Pearl River Delta covers 7,500 square kilometres.
Transport sector lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming told the committee he hoped the plan could be realised soon.
All vessels in the two existing emissions control areas - in Scandinavia and North America - must switch to 1 per cent low sulphur fuel inside those areas. By 2015, that limit is to be tightened to 0.1 per cent.
Loh said Hong Kong's Fair Winds Charter, a voluntary scheme which saw 18 shipping lines agree to switch their fuel to 0.5 per cent sulphur in port, had helped reduce the concentration of sulphur dioxide in the air by 6 per cent. That pact will end in December.
The government said 474 ocean-going vessels had registered in the first three weeks of an incentive scheme which offers up a 50 per cent cut in port fees if ships uses low-sulphur fuel. The number registering is equal to one in seven of the ships visiting Hong Kong in those three weeks. Last year, 30,000 ships visited the city's waters.
Last month Roberto Giannetta, secretary of the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association, said it would cost a shipping line US$2 million a year to switch from conventional bunker fuel to low-sulphur clean fuel. He said it was uncommon for ships in Hong Kong to use low-sulphur fuel because it was not available in the city.