The Hong Kong government says it cannot regulate the emission of black smoke from China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, despite public concerns over air pollution.

The 305 metre-long Liaoning arrived in Hong Kong early Friday in a display of military might only days after a high-profile visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Concerns were raised after news outlets captured images of the carrier emitting black smoke.

Black smoke billowing out of the Liaoning. Photo: TVB/Stand News.

The secondhand Soviet ship was built nearly 30 years ago and commissioned in 2012. Local media reported that the Liaoning uses heavy fuel oil, rather than nuclear power like carriers in other countries.

Albert Lai, engineer and convener of think tank The Professional Commons, said early-model carriers such as the Liaoning typically use heavy fuel oil, which causes high soot emissions. He said heavy fuel oil is a popular fuel among oceangoing vessels owing to its low price.

He said the Liaoning’s five-day visit to Hong Kong will emit the same level of pollutants as 500,000 cars. The number is based on his estimation that a ship of a similar size typically produces the same level of pollutants in a year as 50 million cars.

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The Liaoning. Photo: Hong Kong Police.

Currently, the Air Pollution Control (Ocean Going Vessels) (Fuel at Berth) Regulation requires all marine vessels use fuel with low sulphur at berth. However, the regulation does not cover military vessels.

The Environmental Protection Department told HKFP: “When we formulated the Regulation, we referenced the international practice that exempts warships or other vessels on military service.”

liaoning smog

“The fuel used by the Liaoning at berth in Hong Kong is exempted from the Regulation.”

However, Lai told Post 852 that the department could still have suggested that the Liaoning switch its fuel, take measures to reduce pollution, or berth at a remote area in order to reduce the impact of air pollution on Hong Kong.

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Photo: Carrie Lam, via Facebook.

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui said the Chinese government should not be excused from damaging the environment. He asked the Environmental Protection Department to change the law so that no exemption would be given to military vessels.

See also: Explainer: China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier arrives in Hong Kong

The Liaoning has berthed near Kau Yi Chau, an uninhabited island located between Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island. The carrier is scheduled to depart on Tuesday.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.