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Hong Kong: how to breathe easier

Christine Loh

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Hong Kong’s worsening air pollution causes four deaths a day on average. Improvements are needed, but how? Christine Loh says revised air quality standards, improved energy efficiency and greener ports are key.
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Hong Kong’s worsening air quality has become an increasingly hot topic in the global press. Photographs of thick, grey smog have appeared on the front of news magazines, and Hong Kong’s desirability as a home for international executives has been thrown into question – news which came as a nasty shock to the city authorities. Recent polls show that air quality is a top concern among city residents; and last year Merill Lynch, the investment bank, warned that air quality in Hong Kong is now so poor that the city's long-term competitiveness is under threat. Skilled professionals were already departing Hong Kong because of the heavy pollution, the bank said, and more will surely follow.

So, just how bad is Hong Kong’s air?

Street-level air quality regularly falls short of the government’s Air Quality Objectives (AQOs), and even further short of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines. For example, on 19 and 20 November 2006, roadside levels of respirable suspended particulates (RSPs – equivalent to PM10) exceeded the WHO guidelines by at least 300%. Since millions of people in Hong Kong live and work in close proximity to busy roads, this presents a major health risk to city residents. Studies by local public health experts have found that these roadside pollution levels are responsible for 90,000 hospital admissions and 2,800 premature deaths every year.

Declining regional air quality means visibility has also decreased dramatically. In 2004, low visibility occurred 18% of the time the highest on record, according to the Hong Kong observatory.

The most problematic air pollutants in the region, besides RSPs, are ozone and nitrogen dioxide. But what are the sources of this pollution?

Most of Hong Kong’s power is generated by burning coal. In fact, electricity generation produces half of Hong Kong’s total emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulates, and 92% of its total sulphur dioxide emissions. Most local power stations do not yet have flue gas desulphurisation, although equipment is being installed and the government has required that all new generation capacity should come from natural gas.

Hong Kong’s roads are also the most crowded in the world, with almost 280 vehicles for every kilometre of road. The city’s vehicle fleet is dominated by heavily polluting, ageing goods vehicles, most of which run between the city and the Pearl River Delta. Diesel commercial vehicles are responsible 90% of RSPs and 80% of nitrogen dioxide emissions from the entire road transport sector, despite making up only 23% of the vehicle fleet. Double-decker diesel buses and a steadily growing fleet of private cars have also added to congestion and pollution.

Recent studies have shown that although emissions from marine vessels make up a relatively small proportion of total emissions, they affect dense population centres on the Kowloon peninsula, where container terminals are located, and so have a significant public health impact. Bunker fuel is highly polluting, and these terminals function 24 hours a day.

But Hong Kong’s air quality not only suffers from severe local air pollution generated by the city itself, but also regional smog – pollution that arises from the industry of the Pearl River Delta area.

The city’s air has been greatly affected by the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of south China’s Pearl River Delta region. The delta area is about the size of the San Francisco Bay Area, and while it is not a geographically large area, it is where Hong Kong’s light industrial manufacturing relocated to in the 1980s, as Hong Kong capital fed China’s mighty export production capabilities. Even though China now has other export production hubs, Guangdong Province still generates about 30% of China’s total annual export earnings.

Electricity generation, energy-intensive industry and a rapidly growing fleet of vehicles are all major sources of emissions in the Pearl River Delta region. The power-generating capacity of Guangdong province is still made up in large part by highly polluting and inefficient small capacity units, although some of these are being phased out. Shortages in the power supply to industry also mean that many factories often run their own generators, which burn low quality fuels. While the authorities have issued warnings and fines, as well as pushing more polluting businesses to upgrade or relocate, the air quality in the Pearl River Delta is still very poor.

A regional emissions inventory conducted around 10 years ago showed that about 80% of air pollutants have their source across the border in the Pearl River Delta region, while 20% are emitted by Hong Kong. This has led many people in Hong Kong to feel that its pollution is outside their jurisdiction, and that local efforts would not be enough to turn things round – an impression that has had a debilitating effect on pollution control efforts.

But the most recent research (to be published in March 2007 by Civic Exchange) shows that by examining data from regional and local monitoring stations and combining it with meteorological information, an interesting picture emerges. Controlling emissions from marine and transportation sources in Hong Kong more stringently could in fact have a substantial impact on the city’s public health. Hopefully this new research will push the Hong Kong government to take much more aggressive action in local pollution control. But what should this involve?

One crucial step would be to replace Hong Kong’s outdated AQOs. These air quality standards were set in 1987, and have not since been revised. There is now growing pressure for Hong Kong to adopt the WHO global standards, which better reflect current knowledge of pollution’s effects on health. But the government has shown reluctance to adopt the WHO standards for fear that Hong Kong’s air quality will be shown to fall short of the guidelines, since the city’s pollution levels already exceed the weaker AQOs. Experts have criticised the government for misapplying air quality standards by regarding them as nothing more than administrative guidelines, when they are in fact set to protect public health.

Pollution is a major cause of illness in Hong Kong. Every year, pollution is the cause of around 1,600 deaths (four per day), 64,200 hospital admissions (176 per day) and 6,811,960 doctor visits (18,600 per day). These serious health effects result in annual community losses of over HK$2 billion (around US$255 million) in direct health care costs and productivity losses, and HK$19 billion (around US$2.5 billion) in further costs arising from pain, suffering and personal loss.

Apart from tightening the AQOs, other measures Hong Kong needs to take include:

- Improving energy efficiency: Hong Kong’s energy-efficiency policy lags behind most developed countries. It should make energy-efficiency standards mandatory for buildings and appliances. Research shows that 30% of Hong Kong’s total electricity could be saved if all commercial buildings adopted the standards set out in the Hong Kong Building Environmental Assessment Method (HKBEAM) – a local building standard which is now voluntary.

- Getting highly-polluting pre-Euro and Euro I commercial vehicles off the road: the government is providing a grant to owners in order to encourage them to replace these cars with Euro IV vehicles. But this should be combined with road usage measures, such as banning certain types of vehicles from urban areas during the daytime.

- Implementing a “green ports” policy: Hong Kong should aggressively reduce emissions arising from port operations, as well as the transportation logistics sector involved in export manufacturing.

- Working with Guangdong province: Hong Kong must address regional air quality issues and build capacity for a regional air monitoring framework for the future.

Christine Loh is the CEO of Civic Exchange

Homepage photo by Tony Oxborrow

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Hong Kong has had vehicles on the road for a while

But it is due to the filth and slime of the PRC that the city is now suffering. The sheer volume of pollution in the PRC has reached such a critical level that every time the wind blows it pushes pure smog into HK.

China is poisoning Asia.





why blame?

The situation in Hong Kong is indeed shocking all of us and China indeed has a significant impact on Hong Kong’s polluted air.

But is HK's problem all because of China? Let's not forget that the area near HK is mainly the light industry, let's not forget that how crowded the HK's streets are, let's not forget the density of HK today, let's not forget who are the ones actually went to mainland to build the factories, let's not forget how much the HK local government have done for its people. When you say "china is poisoning Asia" let's not forget all the other good things we have done for the Asia.

It is not the time to blame on someone; it is the time to co-ordinate with each other and work on the environment together.



The fact

The fact is the emission from HK is threatening Mainland China.



The fact?

Emissions from one city are threatening all of China? One city with at most a few light industries such as clothing and food processing? HK is mostly financial, that consumes electricity. Chinese production is sloppy and dangerous, even by CEPA's own records.
The fact is the China is a toxic sewer.



HK is only a link

The finance of HK is emerged because of the long-lasting contrast between the East and the West. HK is working as the link between China and the western countries; it is the most important industrial and trading passage for all kinds of goods importing and exporting China. It takes 90% of the trading business in HK. In such a case, HK is only a segment through the whole process. Your complaining (refers to comment 4) is just like a marketing staff complaining about the pollution out of the plant which he is working for. If one day China doesn't pollute any longer, HK will get bankcrupt.







Desulfurization in HK

The chief-criminals producing large amount of sulfur dioxide are the two largest electricity companies in HK. They excuse not even the basic desulfurizing process by the expensive facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency of HK does not understand this and is really irresponsible.

Lately, the electricity companies claim that the price of desulfurization is too high and try to avoid or put off governmental regulating. While facing various the irresponsible words and deeds of the companies, such as buying large amount of low sulfur coal and adopting the mainland desulfurization standard, the officials in the Environmental Protection Agency do not say anything about it. Can it be approved that the two largest electricity companies in HK not adopting desulfurizing?

The Agency should immediately order them equipping with desulfurization facilities within time limitation and paying the cost themselves! Where is the conscience and liabilities of those companies? Where is money they have made when they were the monopolies in the industry?

A electricity company says 10 billion is needed for desulfurization, this lie only works on the ignorant officials and residents in HK. Actually saving on the routine costs can solve the problem, if subsidiaries from government is available and the companies are less greedy. HK is too small to stand all the emitted sulfur dioxide.

Now so many electronical wastes are being dumped into HK, mainland and Vietnam and threatening the natural resources there; is this fact serious enough to wake the Environmental Protection Agency up?


请问那些说“香港现在所遭受的环境状况是从中国大陆地区排放的污染所造成的”的人, 统计过没有, 香港的风一年四季都是朝哪边吹的?

If don't understand meteorology, keep your mouth shut

I would like to ask the person who wrote "the environmental problems that Hong Kong is suffering today are caused by the pollution that is sent offer from the Chinese mainlaind" - has it not been empirically proven in which direction Hong Kong's winds blow all four seasons of the year?

For No.7


For No.7

In winter, the rising sea temperature and low pressure, air stream flow from high pressure to low pressure; the condition is vice versa in summer. These are all I have learnt in secondary school, is that true? Well, if you think of to object this theory, please stay calm and state specifically. - Aturen






No title

The first comment is too extreme. How can this issue be discussed in such a simplified way~ I agree with the second comment~ "When you say 'china is poisoning Asia', let's not forget all the other good things we have done for the Asia." Jie



The point is.

Correct: the first comment is too extreme and defeats the purpose of this whole article.

That is not to say China is doing well in environmental issues - if it doesn't tackle it with a stronger stance, it will suffer terribly with seriously polluted air and water taking away the essentials of life, then life itself, and causing huuuge economic losses.

The HK government needs to grow a backbone and face up to its own pollution problems and stop caving in to money. Currently, no amount of money will be able to blow away the tawny haze that conceals my beautiful seaview.

But the point of the second comment I believe is not about how China has or has not done good things for Asia. And this is the biggest problem in dealing with serious issues: people are constantly focusing on the wrong things.

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