With pollution from shipping killing 18,000 Chinese every year, the government is cracking down on the use of dangerous fuels in port

Hong Kong, one of the busiest ports in China and the world. But stationary ships are creating air pollution problems (Photo: Andrew Smith)

Every year, over 60% of the world’s seaborne cargoes and 30% of the world’s shipping containers pass through China’s ports, creating an air pollution problem Beijing is now trying to solve.

The country is also home to seven of the world’s top 10 ports, so shipping is becoming a major source of air pollution in cities, such as Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai. An estimated 18,000 premature deaths in China in 2013 were caused by air pollution from oceangoing ships.

So it’s encouraging that in 2016 the government started phasing-in regulations forcing ships to use fuels with 0.5% sulphur content while at berth and near major Chinese ports. This low-sulphur fuel contains 80% less sulphur than standard marine fuels and using it at berth can dramatically reduce air pollution and public health risks.

The new Domestic Emission Control Area (DECA) regulations are an important step towards reducing shipping pollution. The government first implemented the regulations in Shanghai and three other ports in the Yangtze River Delta last April, then in Shenzhen in October. Beginning this year, fuel switching at berth was expanded to eleven core ports, including four in and near the heavily industrialised Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (Jing-Jin-Ji) region.

Map of the Domestic Emission Control Areas (Source: NRDC)

But regulations are only as good as their enforcement. Promisingly, China has been vigorously enforcing them.

Between April and November 2016, Shanghai’s enforcement agency inspected some 1,858 ships, caught 55 ships violating the rules and issued more than US$100,000 (690,000 yuan) in penalties. Two months after the regulations were phased in at four ports in Bohai Bay, two ships, including a foreign flagged ship, were caught using non-compliant fuels.

China’s success in catching dozens of ships using high-polluting fuels makes enforcement look easy, but it’s not, and it’s going to get harder.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires ship operators to keep bunker delivery notes on board and maintain samples of fuel collected during refueling to demonstrate compliance with marine fuel regulations. But these are susceptible to fraud or forgery.

In addition, oceangoing ships – the main target of the DECA regulations – are typically equipped with multiple fuel tanks connected to the engines and or boilers. Even if…