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A high cost to Hong Kong

Air pollution may threaten the future of one of east Asia’s top financial destinations. Eric Cheng reports on a way to count the cost of the problem.

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 “A great city; except for the pollution.” It’s an increasingly common summary of Hong Kong. A financial hub known for its modern infrastructure, towering buildings and fast-paced lifestyle, the city is now attracting a less desirable label. A forecast by the Economist recently highlighted air pollution as a key cause for concern in Hong Kong’s future development. Last year alone, air pollution caused 1,155 premature deaths and an extra 7 million doctor visits, costing the city over HK$2.3 billion (US$297 million).

Cleaning up air pollution is not only an environmental problem, but also an economic and public health issue. Globalisation continues to draw countries closer together and integrates our financial markets. The world’s best minds have greater choice on where to take their talents, and while Hong Kong remains one of the world’s top destinations in this regard, its status is built on increasingly shaky ground.

In a recent survey, one in every five people in Hong Kong said they were considering leaving the city because of the air pollution. One in 10 was either seriously considering leaving or already in the process of leaving. Most worrisome is that the people in this group are the most educated and highest income earners. As Hong Kong’s environmental health affects its economic health, similar financial centres, such as Singapore, are capitalising on the brain drain by emphasising their cleaner environments as a comparative advantage.

Having established that cleaning up the air will benefit the economy, how do we achieve this? In Hong Kong, it is easy to point a finger toward the Pearl River Delta (PRD) on the Chinese mainland. Emissions from manufacturing in the PRD leaves a significant footprint on the city’s air quality, but only focusing on this point misses the full picture. Of the total number of polluted days in Hong Kong, local pollutants were the dominant source over half of the time. Furthermore, the pollutants that do the most damage to people’s health are those from roadside and marine sources, which are both locally generated. This means Hong Kong’s own pollutants are the main culprit and that addressing pollution and reforming local regulations and Air Quality Objectives will make a significant difference.

However, a gap exists between the dangers of Hong Kong’s pollution and public awareness of the problem. The public policy think-tank Civic Exchange has worked with the University of Hong Kong to bridge this divide with the development of the Hedley Environmental Index, the world’s first website to quantify the monetary and public health costs of air pollution in real-time. Named after professor Anthony Hedley of the Hong Kong University School of Public Health, the site uses a peer-reviewed, internationally accepted model to calculate the concrete costs of unsafe air. One goal of the Index is to show the public that air pollution’s effects extend beyond just environmental health and that these costs are tangible.

In just the first two months of 2009, the Hedley Environmental Index shows that air pollution lost Hong Kong HK$350 million and produced an extra one million visits to the doctor. Moreover, these are conservative figures, which count only lost productivity and short-term health costs. The Index does not yet account for the impact of air pollution on factors as lost tourism or long-term health burdens.

Missing in this picture is a hard and enforceable standard to curb pollution. As the unsafe air continues to bear down on Hong Kong, the city needs to search for more challenging markers to lower pollutant levels. Hong Kong’s current Air Quality Objectives are up to four times weaker than the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards; however, even with softer objectives, actual levels of pollution often exceed safe levels. 

The 2005 WHO Air Quality Guidelines can provide the starting point for this discussion, but unfortunately, their only mention by Hong Kong’s leaders has been in the context of implementing WHO’s Interim Target 1 (IT1). While IT1 bears the WHO brand, it was designed for developing cities to get them on the path to lowering pollutants. Hong Kong is clearly not a developing city.

The path forward may present different options for solutions, but it is clear that now is the time to act. The Hong Kong AQOs are heavily outdated, but they are currently under review for the first time since their inception over 20 years ago. The development of the Hedley Environmental Index allows government, civic groups and citizens to track improvements in air quality and see the monetary and public health benefits that reform can bring. The government has begun to reduce emissions from the largest source of air pollution by ordering the installation of flue-gas desulphurisation equipment on all coal-fired power stations by 2011. This is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen how it will address critical issues in the future, such as promoting green transport.

Hong Kong has traditionally been China’s most dynamic city, at the cutting edge of economic development and a leader in introducing international best practice to China. Yet, in air quality management the city lags far behind other world cities. As one of Asia’s premier financial centres, we need to ask what air pollution is really costing us.


Eric Cheng is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. He now works with Civic Exchange.

Luo Rui, a postgraduate student at Peking University's Institute of Environmental Science and Engineering, who has previously worked at Civic Exchange, contributed to this article.

Visit the Hedley Environmental Index here

Homepage photo by Ljubisa Bojic

 

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

吸烟的代价

最近国家公布的国内利税排行榜上,交的税最多的除了石油和银行,接下来就是烟草业。这个大家都知道的害人的鸦片,为什么这么赚钱,这些赚的钱到哪里去了,是个不可告人的秘密。事实上,民众的健康,室内的空气质量等与烟草行业有着紧密的关系。如果我说,我们国家的很大的经济成就来自于烟草的收入的话,应该不是夸张吧。我们两三亿烟民,为国家的税收做出了极大的贡献和牺牲,这个账没有人算过。每年有至少1百万人由于吸烟而死亡,我估计不下3百万人。所以我们国家确实国情不同,我们自己造成的不同。环境和健康,等等吧,等我们足够富了,我们会考虑的。但不是现在,对不起。

The Cost of Smoking

According to recent statistics of the Chinese government, tobacco industry is the third important contributor to the government tax revenue, just behind oil industry and banking. It is widely known that tobacco poses a negative effect on people's health and indoor air quality, yet it remains so profitable. Why? Because a significant part of our country's economic growth comes from the tobacco industry. It is estimated that China has 200-300 million smokers, and they have sacrificed their own health for the government's tax revenue. At least 1 million Chinese die every year of diseases related to smoking, and this figure may grow even bigger. Although economic growth should not come at the expenses of environment and health, China has its own national situations, and the most important task at present is economic growth. Sorry, we will reconsider this problem when we get rich.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

空气污染很讨厌

北京的空气就够糟糕的了,每当空气变得灰蒙蒙的时候就让人感觉很不爽,而这种情况并不少见。一个城市的空气差,直接影响到人们的生活质量,于是自然会让人质疑在这个城市生活的可行性。可是要改善这种状况谈何容易,如果大多数决策者都关心居民的健康和感受,而不是只在乎经济效益,那中国又怎么会有那么多城市存在空气污染和水污染呢?

Beijing's air pollution is annoying

The air quality in Beijing is bad enough now. Residents feel sick when the sky looks dusty, which is a quite common phenomenon. The poor air quality of a city affects daily life directly in a negative way, however, and this would lead to a hard decision on whether we should live in the city or not. The situation of severe air and water pollution in many cities of China reveals the fact that most decision makers care about economic growth rather than the health of city residents. And perhaps it is true.

The comment was translated by Renate.Z

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

不要抱怨了!

楼上的,不要抱怨北京的空气污染了,因为北京举办一个奥运会,举全国之力为之而奋斗,如若再抱怨北京的空气污染就说不过去了。
关于香港的空气污染,不是仅仅一个空气污染指数就能解决一切问题的。
这是一个城市发展的战略定位问题。
要按作者的介绍,香港真得会变成一个臭港了。我想这种情况发生的可能性比较小。
其实,有时候能够说明现状就已经非常不错了,能否拿出方案来是更深层次的问题了。(YZHK)

No More Complaints!

Please please don't complain about Beijing's air pollution any more. The whole country was mobilized for the Olympic Games hosted by this city. It's unfair to keep attacking Beijing for the pollution issues.

As for Hong Kong's air pollution, the pollution index is not able to solve everything on its on.

It's more a strategic issue on how the city decides to develop.

Hong Kong will become a smelly port if what the author describes happens. But I think there is little chance for it to take place.

In fact, it's good enough to tell the public what has gone wrong. Coming up with a plan to fix it will be another thing, which is more complicated.(YZHK)

This comment is translated by Yina

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

城市的代价

从全世界看,大多数的大中城市都面临空气污染问题,人们总是一面抱怨着灰色的天空,另一面还是义无反顾的加入到城市中来,不断地制造出垃圾和污染。
比起香港来,内地的一些重工业和制造业主导的城市的空气质量才叫严重呢。

The Cost of Cities

Most of the world's major cities face air-pollution problems. People are always both complaining about gray skies and continuously creating waste and polluting their cities. Compared with that of Hong Kong, the polluted air from the inland's heavy and manufacturing industries is certainly serious.
(Translated by Jacob Fromer)