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Changes to China’s environmental review law leave activists worried

Under revisions quietly made by the legislature this weekend, projects can seek approval from various departments even if the assessment process isn’t finished

For green activists, environmental impact reviews – despite their often poor implementation – are a critical weapon in the fight against polluting industrial projects.

But under a revision to the assessment law, quietly passed by the National People’s Congress over the weekend, the review is no longer a “precondition” for a project to begin the approval process with other departments.

The change is ostensibly aimed at cutting red tape and ¬removing hurdles to private investment. But activists fear it could usher in a new permissive era, where approval by one department gives a project enough momentum to steamroll a legitimate examination into its effects on the environment.

The review process was enshrined into law in 2003 and effectively gave environmental authorities veto power over a project. and the public a channel to formally register their concerns over a project.

Senior environmental officials – including former vice-minister Pan Yue – used the mechanism to take on powerful state-owned companies and halt construction of dams and petrochemical projects.

Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun said environmental authorities might now come under greater pressure to green light a controversial project if other departments had approved it.

The question is: has the public been given more power to challenge potential polluters instead?

Beijing-based lawyer Xia Jun

For instance, if the developer of an incinerator project had won permission to use land for a project and other approvals were ready, environmental authorities might not be willing to reject it.

“It’s not a problem to cut red tape and weaken government power. The question is: has the public been given more power to challenge potential polluters instead? It’s a pity I don’t see such a change in the revision,” Xia said. Zhou Rong, an environmental consultant in Beijing, said the government was right to cut red tape holding up projects, given the drive to boost private investment amid slower economic growth.

“The amendment weakens the vetoing power of the environmental review mechanism, and no feasible alternative has been offered,” she said.

Ge Feng, a legal consultant with Friends of Nature, said the impact of the change would depend on how ministries – especially environmental officials – carried out their duties.

The revision to the law was carried out in an unusual way. Previously, the public was asked to offer their opinion on environmental legislation before it was passed into law.

But they were not asked to participate in the latest revision, which came amid a wave of protests against incinerators in several mainland cities.

Asked whether a weaker review mechanism meant the public’s voice in decision-making was being undermined, Mei Nianshu, a green activist based in Yunnan province, said: “I’m afraid so.”
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Shenzhen plans three new airports with international flights to city expected to double by 2020

The plan aims to make the city southern China’s transport hub but risks bringing more underutilised airports into the Pearl River Delta

Shenzhen is looking to build three new airports – one each for commercial airliners, seaplanes and helicopters – as part of plans to make it southern China’s transport hub.

However, the plan risks bringing even more underutilised airports into the Pearl River Delta.

The airports are part of a 1.4-trillion-yuan (HK$1.66 trillion) blueprint to shift the city’s development eastward. “Shenzhen will build the ‘One Belt, One Road’ transportation hub in southern China and study the plausibility of building an airport on water in the east as well as starting to plan a second airport in the east as soon as possible,” the Shenzhen government’s Eastward Shift Strategic Action Plan for 2016 to 2020 unveiled last month stated.

According to people with knowledge of the plan, a second Shenzhen airport was in the very early planning stages. The work was being carried out based on projected future demand when Shenzhen’s Baoan international airport reached full capacity. The airport – which handled 39.7 million passengers last year compared with 68.4 million in Hong Kong and 50 million in Guangzhou – is starting a 11.2-billion-yuan expansion plan to add a third runway and fourth terminal that could meet demand up to 2045.

A second airport may be built somewhere near Huizhou, a city to the east of Shenzhen, which now has a small facility that is mostly used by the military.

A new airport for commercial airlines would be in addition to those already operating in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai.

While demand for air travel is huge in the densely populated region, the three larger airports already frequently suffer from delays due to complicated airspace controls in the region while the Zhuhai and Macau airports are underutilised.

“Pearl River Delta airport coordination is just a myth. If it could be done, it would have been done long ago,” CK Law, an associate director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Aviation Policy and Research Centre, said.

He said none of the local governments wanted to see their airport become secondary to others in the region. He also said airlines would only fly to profitable destinations, making it difficult to coordinate the role of the airports unless under a planned economy.

According to insiders, central government regulators planned to give more clarity to Shenzhen airport’s international role. The airport, which only gained its first flight to the United States via Beijing with Air China in February, is expected to be granted at least five more international routes this year as Shenzhen’s role as an international hub is to be enhanced under the 13th five-year plan.

A spokeswoman for the airport said its international traffic was expected to nearly double by 2020. However, she said she was unfamiliar with the second airport proposal.

The Shenzhen government had proposed a rail link between the Shenzhen and Hong Kong airports, which could see the two work as one. Under the plan, Hong Kong would have handled the international traffic while Shenzhen the domestic. The idea was rejected by Hong Kong, but Qianhai, the free-trade zone situated in the middle, was still keen, according to sources.

People with knowledge of the plan said an “airport-on-water” for seaplanes was likely to be built on Shenzhen’s Da Peng Peninsula to the northeast of Sai Kung as part of a plan to develop the peninsula as a high-end corporate travel destination. The same people said Shenzhen’s Nantou Airport that can handle 16 helicopters at a time was to be relocated to the more distant Longhua district. Nantou airport is mainly used by CITIC Offshore Helicopters, China’s largest offshore helicopter operator.

“Building new airports is a typical way for local governments to engineer urban growth after development based on land sales runs out of steam,” Qi Qi, a lecturer at Guangzhou Civil Aviation Academy, said.

He said Guangzhou’s third runway was an example of an expensive development going to waste as its airspace conflicted with Foshan airport, which meant it only ended up being used for landing. Guangzhou is now planning two more runways.

“There might be an oversupply of runways in the short-run, but the bottleneck for airports in China tends to be the airspace. So, as long as the airspace issue is not resolved, airports users will still feel there is not enough airport capacity,” Sarah Wan, assistant professor in the Department of Logistics and Maritime Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said.

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Exposure to air pollution raises your blood pressure, Chinese study shows

Even brief exposure to chemicals found in air pollution can adversely affect blood pressure. Also in the news: women smokers more likely to give up by timing their quit date with their period

Both short- and long-term exposure to some air pollutants commonly associated with coal burning, vehicle exhaust, airborne dust and dirt are associated with the development of high blood pressure, according to new research in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.

“In our analysis of 17 previously published studies we discovered a significant risk of developing high blood pressure due to exposure to air pollution,” says Tao Liu, lead study author from the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Public Health in China. “People should limit their exposure on days with higher air pollution levels, especially for those with high blood pressure; even very short-term exposure can aggravate their conditions.”

The 17 studies involved a total of more than 108,000 hypertension patients and 220,000 non-hypertensive controls. The meta-analysis found high blood pressure was significantly associated with short-term exposure to sulphur dioxide, which mainly comes from the burning of fossil fuel, and particulate matter (PM2.5, the most common and hazardous type of air pollution, and PM10). It was also significantly associated with long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is produced from combustion, and PM10.

No significant associations were found between hypertension and short-term effects of ozone and carbon monoxide exposure. Researchers said ozone and carbon monoxide’s links to high blood pressure requires further study.

Female smokers more likely to kick the habit by ‘timing’ their quit date with their menstrual cycle

Women who want to quit smoking may have better success synchronising their quit date with the period of time following ovulation and prior to menstruation, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. This period, according to the study published in Biology of Sex Differences, is when brain circuitry involved in making “good decisions” is optimal.

Penn researchers recruited 38 physically healthy, premenopausal women aged between 21 and 51 years of age who smoke and who were not taking hormonal contraceptives. Functional MRI scans were done on the women to examine how regions of the brain that help control behaviour are functionally connected to regions of the brain that signal reward.

Results revealed that during the follicular phase – which begins at menstruation and continues until ovulation – there was reduced functional connectivity between brain regions that helps make good decisions and the brain regions that contain the reward centre, which could place women in the follicular phase at greater risk for continued smoking and relapse. Using smoking cues (pictures of smoking reminders such as an individual smoking) was associated with weaker connections between cognitive control regions in follicular females.

“Interestingly, the findings may represent a fundamental effect of menstrual cycle phase on brain connectivity and may be linked to other behaviours, such as responses to other rewarding substances (ie alcohol and foods high in fat and sugar),” says study senior author Teresa Franklin.

Long-term memory test could aid earlier Alzheimer’s diagnosis

People with Alzheimer’s disease could benefit from earlier diagnosis if a long-term memory test combined with a brain scan were carried out, a study suggests. University of Edinburgh scientists, in collaboration with colleagues in the US, studied long-term memory in young mice, some of which had the equivalent of very early stage Alzheimer’s disease, and some of which were healthy.

They say testing memory over a long timescale reveals early deficits in the brain’s ability to remember that go undetected by checks for short-term forgetfulness, which is the current practice for diagnosis. They add that the type of memory loss revealed by such tests could potentially be reversed by the development of new treatments.

In the study, the mice were taught to locate a hidden platform in a pool filled with water, using signs on the wall of the room to navigate. When tested shortly after the initial task, both groups of mice were able to remember the way to the platform. However, when tested one week later, the mice in the Alzheimer’s group had significantly more difficulty remembering the route.

Professor Richard Morris, who led the research, says: “We recognise that tests with animals must be interpreted with caution, but the use of these genetic models in conjunction with appropriate testing is pointing at an important dimension of early diagnosis.”
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Why air pollution is damaging more than just your breathing

The worse the pollution gets, the higher the costs multiply for business

Air pollution caused some 1.6 million people in China to die prematurely in 2013, according to research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) early this year.

The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health found that air pollution caused some 2,000 premature deaths in Hong Kong and public health costs amounted to HK$27 billion in 2015.

And late last year, severe smog caused the government to issue Beijing’s first ever pollution “red alert”, closing down schools.

Most of us are well aware of the health effects brought by airborne pollution and the resulting costs this brings with it. But less known is the psychological effect it has on our behaviour, and consequently our performance in the workplace.

Such psychological effect is seldom considered when assessing pollution’s true economic impact.

In a recent research study. My research colleagues and I examined the effect of air pollution on workplace behaviour in the city of Wuhan in central China – a country infamous for having some of the most dangerously polluted urban environments in the world.

In our study we focused on a behavioural theory that essentially says that an individual’s self-control draws upon a limited pool of mental resources, one that can be used up and needs opportunities to restore.

Air pollution can drain our self-control resources psychologically, causing a range of conditions including insomnia, feelings of anxiety or even depression.

Through a study of 161 full-time employees across different industries, our research examined how pollution affects two kinds of behaviour – organisational citizenship behaviour and counterproductive workplace behaviour.

Organisational citizenship behaviour relates to employee actions that contribute towards the functioning of the firm, but are optional and not specifically part of their job.

Some might label it “going above and beyond the call of duty” which includes actions such as willingness to be helpful to others, to engage with their team beyond their job scope, or to take action that protects or improves the firm’s image.

The second behaviour is just the flipside. Counterproductive behaviour includes a range of negative employee actions such as working on personal matters during work hours, as well as rudeness, hostility or even outright bullying towards colleagues. A common term for this might be “deviance at the workplace”.

In our research we asked participants to record daily diary entries rating their perception of pollution levels, their level of mental resource depletion as well as organisational citizenship and counterproductive workplace behaviours.

We found a clear link between high air pollution and decreased levels of organisational citizenship behaviour. Likewise increased pollution saw a corresponding and marked increase in counterproductive workplace behaviour.

Taking into account variations for gender and age, we observed that air pollution leads to a decrease in self-control resource, which in turn leads to increased counterproductive and decreased organisational citizenship behaviours. Specifically the data gathered showed that the severity of air pollution accounted for an average of around 10 per cent of an individual’s daily self-control resource depletion.

The impact of air pollution makes us less giving or engaged at work and more deviant.

Moreover, in line with ego depletion theory it is apparent that both the direct physiological impact of air pollution and the individual’s own perception of its severity act to deplete resources affecting self-control.

A worker may experience little or no health effects from pollution while another in the same office may suffer badly. Likewise one individual’s perception of what constitutes “severe” pollution may be very different from another.

An essential factor in determining an individual’s ability to manage the effects of drained self-control resources is the support they receive – or feel they receive – from those around them. For example, demonstrations of active support from the firm can go some way to replenish an employee’s mental resource pool.

Indeed our study also found that the negative effects of air pollution on employees’ behaviour were mitigated when organisational support was high – i.e. when the employee perceived that their supervisor or firm was concerned for their well-being.

We also came across firms taking active steps to tackle the immediate effects of pollution, such as installing more effective air filters in their offices.

Similarly supportive firms might provide additional work breaks or the option to work from home on high pollution days, or they may provide easier and better access to

While this favours an argument that firms should do all that they can to support employees exposed to severe air pollution, all of this comes with a cost to the firm.

The worse the pollution gets, the higher the costs multiply for business – so at a broader level the best option would obviously be if there were no pollution at all.

By conducting studies like ours we can better understand the true social and economic implications of pollution, and in turn add weight to the financial argument for stronger and more effective policies to tackle pollution at source.

And in turn, create a cleaner and healthier environment for Hong Kong and China’s next generation to grow up in.

Sam Yam Kai Chi is Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

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‘Draconian’: Human rights groups slams China’s new controversial NGO law

Human Rights in China and Human Rights Watch have criticised China’s new law governing foreign non-government organizations (NGOs). The law, passed Thursday, imposes a series of new regulations and gives authorities expanded powers that activists say threaten the existence of foreign NGOs and civil society in China.

The US-based Human Rights Watch called the law “draconian” and another tool to “legalise China’s human rights abuses.”

“Civil society groups have been one of the only human rights success stories in China in recent years, and their survival is crucial for the country’s future,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch. “So long as repressive restrictions are imposed on some parts of civil society in China, all organisations remain at risk.”

The new law is set to take effect on January 1, 2017 and will require all foreign NGOs to be sponsored by a Chinese government organisation. The law also requires the NGOs to register with the police and Ministry of Public Security, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs as they have in the past.

Another US-based NGO, Human Rights in China, stated that the new law has “the potential to undermine the role and contributions that foreign organisations make toward China’s growing civil society.”

“The international community needs to avoid getting suckered into China’s divide-and-conquer strategy and must reject the clearly politicised distinction between the ‘harmful’ and beneficial’, especially when ‘beneficial’ really means beneficial to Party control,” added Human Rights in China executive director Sharon Hom.

“Ultimately no group will be deemed welcome unless it is willing to work within a constricted civil society space that is securely monitored and controlled by the authorities.”

Deeply concerned at passage of new NGO law in #China. Act limits space for civil society; puts legitimate work of independent NGOs at risk.

China trash incinerator project called off after protest

Authorities in eastern China with more sense than Hong Kong’s lying ‘landfills are full’ ENB fools have halted plans to build a trash incinerator after rowdy street protests by residents and the arrests of two women.

The Haiyan county government in Zhejiang province said in a statement Friday that hundreds of residents began to gather illegally Wednesday and blocked roads. The demonstration escalated on Thursday evening when the mob attacked a local government building, smashing objects and causing injuries to police officer and bystanders, it said.

A 19-year-old woman was detained on charges of spreading unverified gory pictures and videos on the Internet, which were viewed more than 5,000 times. Another woman was charged with spreading insults against local officials, the government said.

The Haiyan government first revealed plans for the project on April 12, saying it was needed to help dispose of the 450 tons of solid waste that residents are generating every day.

No reason was given for the cancellation.

Recent years have seen a growing number of protests against incinerators, chemical plants and other projects believed to threaten the environment and living conditions.

Those have generally been permitted despite the ruling Communist Party’s pervasive crackdown on independent organizers and political critics, although arrests often follow once demonstrations die down.

Environmental safety concerns have been further fueled by a string of serious accidents involving deadly chemicals in China.

In August, 173 people, many of them firefighters, were killed in a chemical explosion in the port of Tianjin involving 700 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide. Investigators said the warehouses storing the chemicals had been built too close to residential units and numerous people were arrested for violating regulations on safe distances.

Third runway raises fears of mainland say on airspace

It would be necessary for Hong Kong to allow mainland authorities to administer its airspace if the airport’s third runway is to be built, an aviation official told lawmakers.

Members of the Legislative Council’s subcommittee on the third runway yesterday expressed fears that issues arising from a new runway would be a repeat of the Express Rail Link co- location immigration arrangement, as the transport chief refuses to make public arrangements on airspace.

When the third runway is built, the number of flights per hour would increase to 102, and it would be inevitable for Hong Kong to let mainland authorities administer some of its airspace, said Samuel Ng, senior evaluation officer of the Civil Aviation Department.

The arrangement is in line with the Basic Law and international standards, Ng said.

Lawmaker Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said Hong Kong people may not feel comfortable with letting mainland authorities administer their airspace.

Legislator Lee Cheuk- yan said the biggest problem is that lawmakers have no idea about what agreement the SAR government reached with its mainland counterparts.

“I can smell the scent of the Express Rail Link,” Lee said.

Ng said the airport has once reached its highest capacity of 68 flights per hour last winter, the main constraint is the safety distance between aircraft required by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Ng said delegation of airspace conforms with regulations of the ICAO, and is a common international practice, giving Singapore and Malaysia as an example. The arrangement conforms with the Basic Law and will not involve the allocation of civil aviation airspace from the SAR to other jurisdictions.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the plan on air-traffic management by civil aviation authorities of Hong Kong, the mainland and Macau took the third runway into consideration.

“The plan involves many technical details of other authorities. We cannot reveal those by ourselves,” Cheung said.

Beijing company set to take over German incinerator group

EEW Energy from Waste is reportedly worth $2 billion

Beijing Enterprises Group Co, the State-owned investment firm, suspended trade in its stocks on Thursday in Hong Kong after reports it had won a bid to buy EEW Energy from Waste, a major German garbage-incineration power plant operator.

The Wall Street Journal said Beijing Enterprises had outbid several others to acquire EEW from private-equity firm EQT Partners for 1.8 billion euros ($2 billion).

The companies could not be reached for comment.

EQT put EEW up for sale last summer. The German company runs 19 plants supplying electricity, regional heat and industrial steam.

EEW’s latest figures showed it turned 4.9 million metric tons of garbage into 1,900 gigawatt hours of electricity and 3,000 gW hours of heat in 2014, which generated revenue of 539 million euros.

Its statistics for last year are yet to be released.

If successful, it will be the biggest takeover of a German company by a Chinese company, and follows the $1 billion deal by China National Chemical Corp with German plastic equipment manufacturer KraussMaffei in January.

Beijing Enterprises shares closed at HK$38.05 ($4.89) on Wednesday, down 19 percent from the beginning of January. The Beijing company has an investment portfolio spanning gas supplies, beer and waste water treatment.

According to Reuters, the group of bidders in the final round included waste-to-energy operator China Tianying Inc, a consortium including the Chinese financial investor Beijing Capital Group Co, a group made up of German utility Steag Energy Services GmbH and the Australian financial investor Macquarie Group Ltd, and Fortum Oyj, the Finnish energy company.

Guo Yungao, director of the power generation department at the China Association of Circular Economy, told a recent conference on waste-to-energy that most Chinese garbage is buried.

“But burying garbage results in pollution of underground water. If it could be used for power generation, it could save up to 50 to 60 million tons of coal every year,” Guo said.

Dealing with the growing amount of garbage has become big business in China.

In April 2014, there were 178 waste-to-energy operators with a capacity of 166,000 tons of garbage, but that number had jumped to 300 by the end of last year, with a 300,000-ton capacity.

“Overseas M&A is a good way to learn from developed countries which have sophisticated waste-to-energy technologies,” said Lin Boqiang, director of the research center of China energy economics at Xiamen University.

“Taking over brand names and the management expertise of overseas environmental management companies is also going to strengthen the image of Chinese buyers.”

Researchers find shared molecular response to tobacco smoke and indoor air pollution

Exposure to certain household air pollutants may cause some of the same molecular changes as smoking cigarettes.

A study in the journal Carcinogenesis reports non-smoking women living in rural China who burn smoky (bituminous) coal for heating and cooking had gene expression patterns in buccal (cheek) epithelial cells similar to those present in the cheek cells of active cigarette smokers. The study, conducted by investigators at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), and others, is the first to identify genomic alterations that result from exposure to smoky coal.

Approximately three billion people in the world use coal and biomass (charcoal, wood, animal dung and crop waste) for cooking and heating. “Lung cancer rates among non-smoking women in China’s rural counties, where smoky coal is used extensively, are among the highest in the world,” noted Qing Lan, MD, PhD, MPH, senior investigator at the NCI, and co-senior author of the study.

Avrum Spira, MD, MS, professor of medicine, pathology and laboratory medicine at BUSM and co-senior and co-corresponding author of the study, has previously shown that tobacco smoke induces gene expression changes throughout the epithelium of the respiratory tract. Since smoky coal is also an established risk factor for lung cancer and other non-malignant respiratory diseases, the researchers were interested to examine whether smoky coal had a similar effect on the respiratory tract.

“While lung cancer in this population has been linked to the usage of smoky coal, as compared to smokeless (anthracite) coal, the molecular changes experienced by those exposed to these indoor air pollutants remained unclear,” said Nathaniel Rothman, MD, MPH, MHS, senior investigator at the NCI, and a co-author of the study.

To understand the physiologic effects of this exposure Spira and his collaborators at NCI analyzed buccal epithelial cells collected from healthy, non-smoking female residents of Xuanwei and Fuyuan county who burned smoky and smokeless coal. Genome-wide gene-expression profiles were examined and changes associated with coal type were compared. The researchers identified 282 genes as differentially expressed in the buccal epithelium of women exposed to smoky versus smokeless coal.

“We then compared our smoky coal gene-expression signature to gene-expression changes observed in tobacco users and found that smoky coal emissions elicited similar physiologic effects. These results shed new light on the molecular mechanisms associated with smoky coal exposure and may provide a biological basis for the increased risk of lung cancer,” explained Spira, who is also director of the Boston University Cancer Center and a pulmonologist at Boston Medical Center. “We hope genomic profiling of the biologic response to solid fuel emissions will ultimately lead to the development of clinically relevant biomarkers,” he added.

“Ultimately, this and other studies of the health effects from indoor air pollution due to smoky combustion highlight the importance of switching to cleaner fuels,” concluded Lan.

Delta blamed for ozone rise

Vehicle, factory and power plant emissions in the Pearl River Delta have pushed up the ozone level in Hong Kong, although general air quality continued to improve last year compared with 2014, the Environmental Protection Department says.

While preliminary data showed concentrations of all major pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and respirable suspended particulates, dropped in 2015 compared with 2014, the level of ambient ozone dropped slightly by 2 percent but was still 32 percent higher than in 1999.

The assistant director of environmental protection, Mok Wai- chuen, said ozone pollution produced from local emissions showed a decreasing trend over the past year.

“But the increase in the regional background, mainly due to PRD-originating emissions, has led to an overall increase in ambient ozone level,” he said.

Mok stressed that collaboration with the mainland is a must when tackling the increasing level of ozone.

But he did not say what actual measures have been or would be taken.

“The two sides of the government will prepare for a mid-term review on the emission reduction results for 2015 so as to finalize the emission reduction targets for 2020 in order to further improve regional air quality,” he said.

Data showed that Tuen Mun had the worst air quality last year, with 416 hours of the Air Quality Health Index at high or above, followed by Tung Chung with 346 hours.

Principal Environmental Protection Officer Shermann Fong Che-ping said the two areas were mainly affected by ozone.

Asked if the smog in China would possibly affect the SAR air quality, Mok said: “The air quality will be worse if the wind is from mainland because it will bring the pollutants from the land and human activities.”

Mok said the government aims to phase out 82,000 pre-Euro IV diesel commercial vehicles by the end of 2019.

Three low emission zones have been set up at busy corridors in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok for franchised buses whose emission performances meet Euro IV or above.

He believed that Hong Kong will reduce carbon intensity by 50 to 60 percent by 2020 compared with the 2005 level by committing to its control measures