Much ink has been spilled of late about China’s expanding maritime ambitions from the announcement of new projects along the Maritime Silk Road to news of Chinese icebreakers operating in the Arctic.
Less attention has been paid to the environmental impact of this expansion and to the promising steps China is taking to control air pollution from ships.
China, including Hong Kong, is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from shipping according to a new report released Tuesday 17.
The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the US-based independent environmental organisation where we work, revealed that while air pollution from ships dipped between 2008 and 2012, it is on the rise once again, along with energy use, driven in part by vessels registered to China.
Carbon emissions rising
Ships accounted for about 3% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from 2007 and 2012, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency that oversees international shipping.
However, CO2 emissions from shipping are projected to roughly double by 2050 and are concentrated in East Asia, where shipping accounts for as much as 16% of total CO2 emissions. Nearly half of those emissions occur in the East China and South China Seas, where 40% of the world’s seaborne trade took place in 2015.
Overall, the ICCT estimate that CO2 emissions from global shipping increased from 910 to 932 million tonnes, or about 2.4%, from 2013 to 2015.
This is the reversal of the trend identified by the IMO in 2014, which found that shipping energy use and air pollution fell from 2008 to 2012 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
GHGs and air pollution is concentrated in a handful of the Flag States that register and license ships.
The top six flag states collectively emitted over half of total shipping CO2, with China ranking second (11%) after Panama. Ships registered to China and Hong Kong also emit significant amounts of local air pollutants.
Open registries, which allow a merchant ship to register far from where it is owned and operated, make it difficult to calculate the magnitude of shipping emissions. For example, The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that China was responsible for 24% of container goods movement worldwide in 2014.
China was responsible for 24% of container goods movement worldwide in 2014
Committed to cleaner air
These findings are important as China moves to reduce its domestic GHG emissions and address its air quality challenges.
China has pledged to significantly reduce its carbon intensity levels and peak total carbon emissions by 2030. It has also finished a mid-term review of the first phase of its Air Pollution Control Action Plan and is considering even more ambitious goals for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), an important precursor of urban smog.
The mid-term review specifically identified shipping as a major source of emissions in port cities.
The silver lining for China is that there is great opportunity in cutting shipping emissions.
Policies to control air pollution from ships remain underdeveloped globally. For example, fuel quality standards for passenger cars in most major economies require virtually zero sulfur fuels, while the majority of the world’s maritime fleet still uses fuels with as much as 27,000 parts per million (ppm) sulfur. Even today, most large marine engines remain essentially uncontrolled.
China is moving ahead by putting in place a series of domestic policies to control air pollution from ships and ports. In August 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Transport (MoT) released its Action Plan to Control Air Pollution from Ships and Ports (2015-2020), which aims to reduce shipping air pollution in three coastal port clusters by up to 65% by 2020.
Subsequently, MoT designated three domestic emission control areas (DECA) for the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region, the Yangtze River Delta region and the Bo Sea region within which ships are required to burn cleaner fuels starting from January 1, 2017.
Finally, in August 2016 China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) released the nation’s first emission standards for smaller marine engines used in domestic ships.
The central government, along with leading port cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, is also actively promoting new technologies like “shore power”. This allows ships to use electricity rather than burning dirty fuels while “hotelling” (the time a vessel spends in port that is neither loading or unloading) at a port, along with cleaner burning liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Plenty more options
With ambitious goals set to reduce air pollution and GHGs, China still has lots of policy options in the maritime sector to help meet the targets.
Two approaches in particular deserve mentioning. For the period of 2016-2018, ships need to use cleaner fuels only while at port within China’s designated DECAs.
Beginning in 2019, that requirement will expand to all activity within China’s territorial waters (UN baseline plus 12 nautical miles) for the three areas.
Fuel use at berth accounts for less than 10% of air pollution in the greater Pearl River Delta region, compared to 63% within the 12 nautical mile zone. In other words, the expanded DECA requirements will cover seven times as much air pollution starting with significant air quality and health benefits.
Fortunately, leading port cities lare embracing the central government’s regulations by accelerating the implementation schedule of the DECA requirements. MoT will also consider whether the existing DECA requirements should be further strengthened by the end of 2019.
A further step would be for China to formally designate an IMO Emission Control Area (ECA) off its shores. These are currently enforced off the coast of North America and in the North and Baltic Seas in Europe. They apply tighter fuel quality and engine emission standards on ships operating up to 200 nautical miles from the applicant country’s shore.
A Chinese ECA would reduce sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions by an additional 80% and could also cover NOx emissions. This would be an important step to improve local air quality and to protect human health in East Asia. An ECA would also establish an additional incentive for ships to become more energy efficient to manage fuel costs, reducing GHGs at the same time.
An ECA application to International Maritime Organization, and the environmental commitment it represents, would be a fitting complement to China’s expanding maritime ambitions.