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Could China’s shipbreaking subsidies clean up South Asia’s polluted scrap yards?

Sensemaking / Could China’s shipbreaking subsidies clean up South Asia’s polluted scrap yards?

China’s decision to extend its ship recycling subsidy programme may be led by economics, but is it also driving environmental standards in ship recycling across the global industry?

By Juliette Aplin / 14 Aug 2015

China’s Ministry for Transport Ship Recycling Subsidy programme was due to end in 2015, but has recently been extended for an additional two years. First established in 2013, the policy offers an initial subsidy of RMB 750 ($120) per gross tonne to ship owners who scrap their vessels before their operational expiry date. A second subsidy of the same amount is also available once a new Chinese-registered vessel is ordered as a replacement. 

As Zhang Shouguo, Executive Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Shipowners' Association, commented in Maritime Executive, the subsidy has been extended in order to support the Chinese shipping industry which is facing “a very difficult downturn” due to the Chinese economic slowdown and an overcapacity of vessels in the market. Demand for new ships, even with efficiency improvements, is therefore questionable.   

Previously, it was much cheaper for Chinese ship owners to send their old vessels to the unregulated shipbreaking yards found on the beaches of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, the Government’s investment has provided the financial incentive to convince Chinese ship owners to sell their ships to China’s regulated and improved recycling facilities instead.

Cleaning up Asia’s shipbreaking beaches

Over 70% of the world’s disused shipping vessels end up polluting beaches along the Indian Pakistani and Bangladeshi coastline. Activists and foreign governments have tried to shut down the notorious shipbreaking yards of Alang, Mumbai and Chittagong for decades. However, figures from the NGO Shipbreaking Platform suggest China’s subsidies are having a much greater impact. 

Even before the subsidy programme was extended, China received 65 out of the 262 ships scrapped globally between January and April 2015. Shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh and Pakistan recycled slightly more (66 and 69 respectively). Increasing numbers of ships are expected to head towards China’s recycling yards as regulation from the European Commission is announced later this year.

The European Commission is expected to ban ship owners from using substandard shipbreaking yards, requiring all EU registered ships to be recycled in approved sustainable facilities.

As Adam Minter writes in the BloombergView, “China's ascendancy as a ship breaker won't spell the complete demise of Alang”. However, could increasing environmental standards for dismantling EU-registered ships, combined with China’s falling steel price, bring an end to its substandard practices? 

South Asian shipbreaking yards could react in one of two ways, as Patrizia Heidegger of Shipbreaking Platform speculates. The EU list in particular, could ““split the market into a safe market, and a substandard market”.

However, China’s subsidy programme is already removing the incentive for Chinese ship owners to beach their ships in low-cost shipbreaking yards such as Alang or Chittanchong. Fearing loss of business EU-registered ships as well – another key portion of the shipbreaking market – shipyard operators claim to have made improvements to ensure the safe disposal of asbestos, and introduced periodic auditing and medical check-ups for workers. These changes may not yet reach the standards set by the EU, but they could be leading the industry in the right direction.

Image credit: Adam Cohn / Flickr

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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