With China hosting seven of the world’s 10 busiest ports, the need to address shipping-related air pollution is a critical element in addressing the country’s air quality.
In late 2015, China’s Ministry of Transport announced an action plan for implementing Ship Emission Control Zones (ECZ) in the coastal regions of the Yangtze River Delta Region, the Pearl River Delta Region and the Bo Sea Region.
The plan applies to most vessels operating within the ECZ boundary, and aims to reduce emissions by requiring the use of higher-grade marine fuels.
While the new fuel sulphur limits are a marked improvement over previous global limits (fuel sulphur limits of 5,000 parts per million as compared with 35,000ppm), it is still significantly higher than the 1,000ppm limit within Emission Control Areas (ECA) determined by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
In addition to the differing sulphur limits, there are other discrepancies in regulations between IMO-designated ECAs and China’s ECZs, including:
Timelines. IMO ECAs and China’s ECZs have different implementation schedules. For instance, the Chinese sulphur limit does not apply to all ports until January 1, 2019.
Inclusion of NOx (nitrogen oxides). Currently, China’s ECZs address only sulphur, while some of IMO’s ECAs address NOx as well.
Applicability. The IMO ECAs include all vessels within the boundary areas, while China excludes fishing, sport and military vessels.
Boundary extensions. The Chinese ECZs extend 12 nautical miles offshore, including parts of the coastline, while the ECA boundaries extend between 100 and 300 nautical miles offshore, including the whole coastline.
While the current action plan presents significant steps towards addressing domestic — and by association, global — air quality, China is still lagging behind IMO recommendations in reining in its shipping-related emissions.
Fortunately, there are some signs the Chinese government will take even greater strides in its efforts to improve air quality, potentially moving as far as adoption of IMO ECA regulations.
The open door. Despite its less stringent regulations, the Chinese government has left the door open for imposing tighter limits.
A key element of the MOT’s Action Plan was the potential for decreasing the sulphur limit to 0.1 percent (1,000ppm) — in line with the IMO’s ECA limits for sulphur — after an evaluation in 2019.
Enforcement efforts. China has not just been setting regulations, it’s been enforcing them.
Between April and November 2016, Shanghai’s enforcement agency inspected 1,858 ships, caught 55 ships violating the rules and issued more than 690,000 yuan ($136,800) in penalties, Fung Freda reports in Climate Home News.
These enforcement efforts demonstrate China is not just paying lip service to pollution abatement, but is serious about making an impact.
Key partnerships. Air pollution abatement is a complex issue, one that is difficult for any single entity to address. It requires government, industry, and public education and action.
Organisations such as the World Resources Institute have begun working alongside governments to educate and inform stakeholders.
“We have developed guidelines to evaluate emission inventories and the social impact of maritime air pollutions,” WRI research associate Su Song said.
“We are conducting training programs in several Chinese cities such as Qingdao and Guangzhou, with the aim to test our methodologies and influence the policies by science-based evidence.”
Pressure from outside. As of 2018, China produces the most air pollution in the world and contributes 18 to 35 per cent of global air pollutant emissions, according the Geoscientific Model Development journal.
Because China’s air quality affects the rest of the global community, it has and will continue to be the target of political pressure to continue to reduce its pollution levels.
Irrefutable science. As recently as 2017, well after the MOT Action Plan’s publication, Chinese Health Planning Commission officials were publicly declaring there was no data to support a link between poor air quality and cancer.
As more and more studies provide solid proof of the health risks of air pollution, China will have to react and step up its game to reduce emissions.
Spillover effect. If IMO global SOx (sulphur oxides) and NOx limits continue to tighten, more and more ships will be required to lower their emissions, regardless of what China does.
And as more ships switch to other fuel options, China can increase its own regulations without incurring additional burdens.
Impact on commerce. If all else fails, a blow to the pocketbook will force China to move air quality up on its list of priorities.
In recent years, poor air quality has forced a number of airport closures from Shanghai to Beijing to Xinjiang.
Consider lost productivity, the costs of poor health, the loss of commerce, and more … and the costs of pollution add up to billions.
According to Fortune magazine “the Chinese government said directs costs amounted to $200 billion a year in 2010”.
We may not see China moving as fast towards limiting shipping emissions as other parts of the world. However, the signs are good that the government will continue to increase its efforts to improve the country’s air quality.