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Report: China Needs ECAs

Published Nov 5, 2014 6:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council has released a report on air pollution in China citing shipping as a major contributor and recommending the introduction of emission control areas (ECAs). The report: Prevention and Control of Shipping and Port Air Emissions in China was written by Freda Fung, Zhixi Zhu, Renilde Becque and Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report states:

China is home to seven of the world's ten busiest container ports. About 26 percent of the world's containers pass through the top ten Chinese ports every year. Every ship and truck brings pollution along with its cargo, and China is paying a high price for pollution from shipping. In 2010 the country saw an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths caused by ambient air pollution. 

According to studies conducted in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, shipping is a significant source of these air pollution and health problems, particularly in port cities. Since Chinese port cities are among the most densely populated with the busiest ports in the world, air pollution from ships and port activities likely contributes to much higher public health risks than are found in other port regions.

In China, severe air pollution episodes from recent years have prompted the government to adopt a new set of ambient air quality standards and implement a series of measures for improving air quality. However, only a few port cities and provinces have begun to pay attention to emissions from ships and port activities. Hong Kong is the first to strictly enforce the use of low-sulfur fuel by local vessels, and it will soon be the first in China to mandate that oceangoing vehicles (OGVs) use lower-sulfur marine fuel while docking. 

Shenzhen has followed, announcing a comprehensive list of measures for cleaning up ships, trucks, and port equipment. Other port cities and regions have also issued plans to promote shore power, electrification of port equipment, and trucks powered by electricity or natural gas. All in all, measures adopted for the control of air emissions from shipping and ports, as well as related research, are still at an early stage in China. Cleaning up ships, trucks, and port equipment, therefore, can contribute significantly to the important air quality improvement efforts undertaken by coastal regions.

While the announcement of clean port/clean shipping plans are encouraging, most of these plans were proposed by a city or provincial government without detailed, port-specific analysis due to a lack of data. The plans lay out only high-level goals, and implementation details -- such as penalties or incentives to ensure attainment of these goals -- need to be worked out by the city or provincial agencies in charge and agreed upon by various stakeholders, including the port and shipping industry. 

Furthermore, unless port cities cooperate on regional emission control measures, the fear that ships will shift to less regulated ports could prevent port cities from adopting stricter measures, such as mandating the use of low-sulfur fuel. If regulation were to drive ships to other ports, such "leakage" would merely shift pollution from one port to another and seriously undermine the overall effectiveness of clean port and shipping measures.

To address these challenges and knowledge gaps, more research is needed to establish emission inventories and evaluate the costs and benefits of various pollution control measures specific to individual ports or regions. As the costs and benefits of measures like shore power or the use of liquefied natural gas could vary substantially depending on port-specific conditions, such analysis could help ports prioritize and best direct resources to strategies that maximize emissions reductions. This analysis could then be used to formulate clean port plans that guide efforts to reduce air pollution from shipping and port activities.

Research to assess the impacts of regulation on port competitiveness and how to address those impacts would also help garner broader support for port and shipping emissions control programs. Ultimately, a regional or even national approach to reducing marine and port emissions, such as the establishment of an Emission Control Area (ECA) would be the best way to prevent ships from evading their responsibility by transferring to ports with lax environmental requirements, and would ensure that any program adopted in China will achieve the expected emissions control and health outcomes.