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In Hong Kong, Maersk swapping blue for green

Posted to Far East Maritime (by on September 21, 2010

What do you get if you place two of the world’s top five busiest ports alongside each other – a public health disaster.

Hong Kong and Shenzhen together handle more than 10 percent of the total global container traffic. That is an incredible number of boxes arriving and departing on thousands of ships.

Great for business if you are a terminal operator, but very bad for health if you live anywhere near the ports.

The dirty sludge at the bottom of the barrel has a high nitrogen and sulphur content that makes it significantly more noxious than other types of fuel. Sulphuric emissions are microscopic and penetrate deep into the lungs.

Numerous surveys have illustrated the dangers of living close to ports, which is a problem in South China because both Hong Kong and Shenzhen ports are surrounded by heavily populated areas.

Under international agreements, oceangoing vessels can burn bunker fuel with up to 4.5 percent sulphur content. Compare that to the ultra-low sulphur diesel used by container trucks in Hong Kong that has a 0.005 percent sulphur content.

There is no simple or quick fix to the problem. International agreements are reached at a super slow steaming pace, and even though the health risks are huge, oceangoing ships will only have to meet fuel standards with 3.5 percent sulphur content by 2012. By 2020 the percentage may have inched up to 0.5 percent.

For some jurisdictions, this is too long. Places like LA and Long Beach, or Hamburg and Rotterdam, are rigorously enforcing emissions curbs but Asia is lagging behind. Hong Kong’s emissions regulations extend only to local vessels, which generate a negligible volume compared to thousands of container ships that stop by every year.

Maersk Line announced a couple of weeks ago that its 850 vessels that call at Hong Kong every year will switch to cleaner low-sulphur fuel when in the port. The cost to the company will be about US$1 million a year that the carrier says it will shoulder.

Maersk and its parent AP Moller-Maersk are pretty active in the eco-solutions business, so the initiative is a continuation of its moves to lower its carbon footprint.

The Danish carrier hopes other lines will follow its lead in Hong Kong but has ruled out extending the low sulphur switch to other Asian ports. If Maersk is the only one doing it, the line will put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

So exciting as it is, relying on carriers to voluntary switch to cleaner fuel and carry the financial burden themselves is probably asking too much.

Ports across Asia need to follow their European and US counterparts and regulate. Trade may be the lifeblood of busy Asian gateways, but is it fair that it comes at the expense of those unlucky enough to be living near the busy ports?

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