Renilde Becqué

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NRDC White Paper: Prevention and Control of Shipping and Port Air Emissions in China

Co-author of NRDC white paper published in October 2014, receiving considerable media attention in the international press. Introductory article and more information here.

Why shipping emissions matter

Whereas when growing up the Port of Rotterdam in the small country of the Netherlands was the busiest port in the world, nowadays China is home to seven of the world’s top ten container ports. Three of these ports, i.e. Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, are located in the so called Pearl River Delta, one of the most densely urbanized regions in the world and a key hub of economic growth. A combined 30% of the world’s containers pass through China’s ports every year, however with every ship and truck entering these ports comes not only cargo but also air pollution.

Container ships and other vessels are predominantly powered by diesel engines, which means that their most significant air pollutants from burning fuel comprise particulate matter (PM), sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Ocean-going vessels (OGV) such as the container ships that ply the seas and oceans between continents use mainly bunker fuel to provide propulsion, heat and electricity. This fuel is a residual product from the refinery process and is characterized by high sulfur content and the presence of heavy metals such as cadmium, vanadium and lead.

Regulation of air emissions from ships sailing through coastal waters or lying at berth is virtually nonexistent today in China. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) tightened regulations in January 2012 to allow vessels worldwide to burn bunker fuel with a sulfur content of max. 3.5%. In comparison, the allowable sulfur content of diesel used by road vehicles in China is at the most 0.035%, a factor 1000 less, while many of its major cities have capped the sulfur content of on-road diesel to 0.001% or less. This is in line with countries in e.g. Europe and the USA where permissible sulfur levels for on-road are generally at 0.0015% or less.

If these figures leave you slightly dazzled, here’s a more visual representation of what this means. The purple bars relate to the fuel burned in ocean-going vessels, while the two ECA bars refer to “Emission Control Areas” which have been established in the coastal zones of North-America, the US Caribbean and the European North Sea and Baltic Sea areas.


The price of pollution

Maritime pollution comes at a high cost. In densely populated Hong Kong, emissions from vessels –with the top two polluters being container OGVs and cruise ships- were responsible for half of the city’s total sulfur emissions according to 2012 data. In addition about a third of the city’s nitrogen and particulate matter air emissions were attributable to marine sources. Air pollution is known to contribute to premature deaths as a result of respiratory diseases and cancer, as well as to have other serious health and environmental impacts. A 2007 study estimated worldwide premature mortality as a result of OGVs at 60,000 deaths a year –a rather conservative figure- with in particular Asia being heavily affected.


And it doesn’t stop there. Even those living away from coastal regions are not safe from maritime pollution. Shipping emissions can travel up to hundreds of miles inland as a result of land-sea winds. According to 2014 World Health Organization data, air pollution exposure is now the single largest environmental cause of premature deaths in Asia and worldwide.

NRDC – China shipping and ports air emissions project

This why the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) commenced a multi-year project in 2013 in collaboration with several partners to advocate for tighter controls on vessel emissions in the coastal waters and ports of the Chinese Pearl River Delta. Eventually the long-term solution requires the implementation of an Emission Control Area (ECA) under IMO regulations for part or all of the South-China coast that would govern ship fuel and emissions throughout the region. Whereas ECAs currently have a 1% cap on sulfur in ship fuel, per coming January 2015 this percentage will be capped at 0.1%, much lower than the sulfur limit on bunker fuel (3.5%) as shown in the figure below.


White Paper

As part of this project NRDC recently published a white paper on the Prevention and Control of Shipping and Port Emissions in China, of which I’m one of the authors. More information on the project can be found here:

While this link takes you directly to the (rather blue looking) White Paper:

After the launch of the white paper in the last week of October 2014, at least 50 articles (original and reposts) appeared in major newspapers, newsletters and websites incl. NY Times, Washington Post, Reuters, Business Week, Associated Press and many more..


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This entry was posted on October 28, 2014 by .

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