Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Civic Exchange

Hong Kong’s Air Pollution Causes Some to Think Twice About Living There

By Kari Jensen, VOA – 15 January 2009

Air pollution in Hong Kong has gotten so bad that some businesses are losing staff and customers. A city watchdog group says the government is not doing enough to reduce pollution, much of which comes from mainland China.

Hong Kong’s skies were clear and blue when Alan Knight first arrived there in 1993. But, within 12 years, the city had become so polluted there were days when he could not see through the gray haze across Victoria Harbor.

Knight’s work requires travel. He is a journalist and professor. He also has a lung condition, which usually is dormant. But it flared, a few years back, when he returned to Hong Kong. He was hospitalized and received high dosages of antibiotics. Once he was back in Brisbane, Australia the condition resolved itself.

Knight says he is looking to move back to Asia, but not Hong Kong.

“I think the atmosphere in Hong Kong is really toxic,” he said. “I’d love to come back to Hong Kong. I love the city. I love the people. I love the place. But, quite frankly, I’m likely to live in Singapore.”

The city’s poor air quality is affecting both its residents’ health and its economy. A recent survey shows one in five Hong Kongers may leave the city, because of air pollution. Air pollution costs more than $283 million annually in health care costs and lost job prospects.

Michael DeGolyer is a professor in international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He conducted the air pollution survey for Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank.

He says about 30 percent of those who are seriously considering leaving because of bad air are mid- to high-level professionals.

DeGolyer says more than 97 percent of those surveyed were ethnic Chinese. He says air pollution is not just an expat concern.

“Everybody breathes air,” he said. “And, it’s become a concern to everybody now.”

In southern China, factories are closing down, in part because of tougher environmental standards. Still, Chinese factories in the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong are the city’s major source of pollution.

But half the time, Hong Kong’s pollution comes directly from its power plants, vehicular emissions and marine traffic.

In the city’s urban areas, tall buildings trap particulates, instead of allowing them to be dispersed by the wind. Residents live close to the roadways and are constantly exposed.

Local activists are looking to other major cities to see what they did to curtail pollution. DeGolyer says research in California shows money spent on air pollution abatement was more than recovered by reduced health care costs and improved worker productivity.

Civic Exchange is pushing Hong Kong to impose stricter air quality standards. It wants the environmental standards to also protect public health. It hosted a clean air conference recently, where international researchers, scientists, economists and academics discussed green measures.

Hong Kong’s present guidelines have not been updated for more than two decades. The city’s air quality, in terms of sulfur content, is much less stringent than World Health Organization guidelines set in 2006.

A Hong Kong legislature’s environmental affairs committee plans to review air quality guidelines and possibly adopt more stringent standards this year.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department has made efforts to curtail pollution. It has tightened vehicle and power plant emissions and introduced cleaner fuels.

Although sulfur dioxide emissions in the city have dropped back to almost 1997 levels, they are still well above the government’s emission-reduction targets. Air pollution worsened this past year.

Government detractors say, in terms of addressing air pollution, the legislature favors business, especially the transport lobby.

Businesses are quick to defend themselves. Al Hendricks works for a company that manufactures energy-saving equipment. He says industry is less resistant to change than government.

“There’s people here who just don’t want to make changes and are either afraid to or just don’t want to rock the boat for whatever reason,” he said.

Hendricks says the government needs to offer incentives if it wants businesses to enforce environmental standards.

As upper-level professionals leave Hong Kong for jobs in less-polluted cities, businesses may be forced to change without government prodding. The demand for top talent across Asia is high.

It is a delicate balance. By imposing stricter standards, Hong Kong may lose business to nearby Chinese ports and cities, which have looser standards. But, by not cleaning up its air, Hong Kong is already losing professionals and businesses.

The Hong Kong government is working with the government of southern Guangdong province to reduce regional emissions.

Guangdong has agreed to ban the construction of new coal-fired or oil-fired power plants.

Still, even if Hong Kong addresses its air pollution, it can not force Guangdong to take the same measures.

Silence Is Not Golden

CHRISTINE LOH – SCMP – Jan 15, 2009

It’s curious, but people are not voicing their concern about air pollution to those who can most do something about it. The government needs to adopt the national environmental plan and set a good example. Civic Exchange’s full survey report, titled “Hong Kong’s Silent Epidemic” and carried out by the Hong Kong Transition Project, was released last Saturday. It looked at how the public is reacting to air pollution and public health. It found that people discuss air pollution with family, friends and co-workers but most of them are not taking matters up with the government, legislators and the media.

So why don’t people complain publicly? They say they don’t think it will help. Some say they don’t know how to, while some don’t believe air pollution is affecting them.

Government officials should pay close attention to the report. It reflects badly on them when people say complaining won’t help. These people have lost confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the problem. The administration also has a responsibility to those who don’t know how to complain, or don’t believe they are affected. Hong Kong’s high level of air pollution speaks for itself – officials need to act.

Moreover, the level of dissatisfaction with government efforts is a very high 77 per cent. Past efforts have included switching taxis and minibuses from using diesel to LPG, supplying ultra-low-sulphur diesel, pushing regulation of idling engines, providing subsidies to replace highly polluting commercial lorries, and tightening emission caps for power plants. But despite these, the public remains dissatisfied, even though people have been silent. Pollution levels have not changed much, according to scientific data, and most people don’t feel any different. Those in charge will no doubt argue that Hong Kong will see substantial reductions in power-plant emissions because of the addition of flue gas desulfurisation technology. With the phased commissioning, Hong Kong should see lower emissions later this year. By 2011, 90 per cent of sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation should have been eliminated, and other pollutants significantly reduced. Officials have focused on power plants in their pollution-reduction strategy. They have yet to get to grips with another major polluter – transport. Viewed in this light, power plants are the easy option. There are only two power utilities in the city. Yet, transport involves many operators, on land, sea and in the air. The major public health culprits are diesel-powered road vehicles – vans, buses and lorries – and marine vessels – tugs, barges, ferries and ships of various sizes.

So far, government initiatives have, on the whole, been end-of-pipe solutions, such as switching to cleaner fuels and adding emissions traps. There have been limited efforts to combine them with urban planning and demand-side management tools to reduce the “canyon effect” on streets and create better roadside environments for the public. And hardly anything has been done to combat the pollution from the burning of toxic bunker fuels, by marine vessels, that gets blown to where people live and work.

It has become blindingly obvious that the government needs to change direction. Public health needs to be an explicit regulatory and legislative driver, and government bureaus and departments must integrate their work. There has been a lack of vision and leadership at the very top. Now the legislature has formed a new subcommittee to tackle air pollution, lawmakers can play a much more active role in calling officials to account and pushing for integrated policies. Without this, we have little to look forward to.

There will be those who say it is not the time to push because of the economic situation. The national 11th Five-Year plan would make good reading for them. The plan puts environmental protection on a par with economic growth and recognises that change must involve comprehensive action using legal, economic, technological and administrative measures. There is a national vision – would Hong Kong’s officials like to get on board?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

Despair In The Air

Updated on Jan 08, 2009  – SCMP

Are local Hong Kong people concerned about air pollution? Yes, they are. If there are people who still think poor air quality is mainly a concern of the expatriate community, they need to look at the evidence. The Civic Exchange survey conducted in September and October last year, released on Monday, shows local people are extremely concerned about the bad air they have to breathe every day. They know Hong Kong’s air has deteriorated from a decade ago, and they know it is worse than the air in New York, Toronto, London and Tokyo. It is also no comfort to them to know that our air is better than that in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The results of the survey, conducted by the Hong Kong Transition Project, show that air pollution is now a major concern across all segments of the community. In general, older people are much more concerned than younger people. This probably indicates that the burden of environment-related health problems falls more heavily on older people.

However, a vast majority of both older and younger people now want the government to treat air pollution as a top priority. Women are also more concerned than men, probably because they spend more time caring for family members. After all, the survey shows that half of all respondents have suffered coughing, choking and stinging eyes; one-third have gone to a clinic with pollution-related problems; a quarter have bought over-the-counter medicine; a fifth have suffered more significant problems; one in 10 has missed school or work, and the same proportion has gone to hospital – all as a result of air pollution.

Shockingly, one in five people out of more than 1,000 randomly selected adults surveyed said they were considering leaving Hong Kong due to air pollution. As a representative sample, this equates to 1.4 million people. More than half of this group said they were thinking seriously about leaving and some had already planned to leave. The propensity to leave increases for higher-income earners, the highly educated, and people in professional, managerial and administrative positions. Many in this category may well have right of residence elsewhere.

Furthermore, about one in four have heard colleagues at work say they might leave Hong Kong due to air pollution. Almost one in 10 have heard of occasions when their company tried to hire someone who turned down the job specifically due to air-pollution-related health problems. This does not mean Hong Kong will definitely see a large brain drain but it certainly should be a loud and clear message that many people are so bothered by air pollution they have thought of leaving, taking a job elsewhere, and some are making arrangements to depart. There are Hongkongers working or studying overseas who may not return.

So, the potential for a brain drain is real. Presumably, they would stay, or return, if the government had convincing plans to make substantial improvements to our air quality over a reasonable period. Bad air quality has made Hong Kong a less-desirable location.

Indeed, a report by the City of London on the future of Asian financial centres, published last October, noted that poor air quality was increasingly recognised “as a critical element in the ongoing competition to attract talent into the city” and that Singapore had “made strenuous efforts to highlight its lifestyle credentials as a safe, clean and hospitable environment in comparison to Hong Kong”. Annual International Monetary Fund reports about Hong Kong have also highlighted air pollution as a recurring concern.

The new Hedley Environmental Index shows the annual direct cost of air pollution is already some HK$2 billion; indirect costs are about HK$20 billion. These figures are, in fact, very conservative. The sobering fact is that air pollution makes Hong Kong less desirable because it damages our health and quality of life. But we need not despair; there are solutions – given the will to act.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

Hong Kong’s Silent Epidemic

Globe-Net – 8th January 2009

An independent public policy think tank has released the findings of a 1,020-person public opinion survey that explored attitudes towards air pollution and associated health risks in Hong Kong. The survey results suggest one in five Hong Kong residents are prepared to leave the city because of its poor air quality.

According to the survey conducted by Professor Michael DeGolyer, Director of Baptist University’s Hong Kong Transition Project, these findings equate to 1.4 million residents thinking about moving away, including 500,000 who are seriously considering or already planning to move according to the survey conducted for the think tank Civic Exchange.

Those most seriously thinking about leaving include top earners and highly educated workers, raising fears about the city’s ability to attract and retain top talent. And other cities in Asia, particularly Singapore, would love to attract those who choose to leave Hong Kong, noted DeGolyer, referring to the long-standing rivalry between the two Asian cities to attract top talent.

Professor DeGolyer highlighted four key findings from the survey:
Public concern about air pollution rose dramatically between 2001 and 2008.
All sectors and segments of Hong Kong society are concerned about air quality;
Hong Kong people believe air pollution makes Hong Kong an undesirable location for both locals and prospective international talent to work there; and
Hong Kong people believe air pollution is damaging their quality of life.

However, almost no-one is expressing their concerns to government leaders, members of the legislature, or members of the media, noted DeGolyer. This silence indicates a serious breakdown in communication and trust, and a need to review the public consultation system, according to the survey findings.

This reluctance to speak out is at the root of Hong Kong’s Silent Epidemic says Christine Loh, CEO, Civic Exchange. “This survey presents the voice of the “silent” public – and it is a worried voice.” She hopes these findings can be used constructively to inform the government’s Air Quality Objectives consultation and an upcoming debate on air pollution issues.

The survey also debunked the myth that concerns about air pollution were confined to the city’s foreign residents, as only three percent of the respondents were expatriates.

Air pollution across Hong Kong last year reached its highest level since records began according to official figures released last week, although the Hong Kong government insisted improvements had been made with respect to air quality.

The pollution is mainly caused by huge numbers of factories over the border in southern China, as well as transport and coal-fired power generation in Hong Kong.

Another Civic Exchange report last year said that at least 10,000 deaths were caused every year in Hong Kong, Macau and southern China by the region’s worsening air pollution.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang has called improving air quality a ’matter of life and death’ for the city. “The quality of Hong Kong’s air is of deep concern in the community and the Environment Bureau (ENB) and Environmental Protection Department (EPD) have been working vigorously to achieve improvements,” notes the government’s website.

To bring the message home about the impact of Hong Kong’s poor air quality a new Environmental Index has been set up and made public on the World Wide Web. “The purpose of the newly created Hedley Environmental Index is to make information on the risks to public health arising from air pollution available to the whole community,” said Dr. Hak-Kan Lai of the School of Public Health of Hong Kong University.

“By comparing the community-wide health impacts the Index shows with the specific complaints reported by members of the public shown in the Civic Exchange survey, it is clear that Hong Kong people feel the negative impacts of air pollution deeply.”

More Than 1 Million People Consider Leaving Polluted Hong Kong

Sun2Surf – Jan 6, 2009

Hong Kong – More than 1 million people are considering leaving Hong Kong because of its worsening air quality, according to a university study published Tuesday.

The potential exodus from the city of 6.9 million would be far greater than the numbers who considered leaving in the run-up to Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, pressure group Civic Exchange warned.

Interviews with 1,000 people suggest that between 700,000 and 1.4 million people are so worried about Hong Kong’s air quality that they are either considering or making plans to leave.

The survey, published in Tuesday’s South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Standard newspapers, indicates that locals as well as expatriates believe the city’s smog is becoming too much of a health hazard to live with.

Speaking on government-run radio station RTHK Tuesday, Civic Exchange chief executive Christine Loh described the findings of the study, conducted by the city’s Baptist University, as “shocking.”

“Nearly half a million people are seriously considering or actually making plans to leave Hong Kong, not just considering it,” she said. “These are huge, huge numbers.

“We are not just talking about expatriates. Only 3 per cent of the sample were non-Chinese. Ninety per cent of the people surveyed have also heard co-workers talking of leaving. We are talking about a broad sweep of Hong Kong people.”

The survey showed that Hong Kong’s image had been dented not only overseas by worsening air quality but also in the minds of people who live and work in the city, Loh said.

Air quality in Hong Kong has deteriorated significantly since the early 1990s, largely because of factory pollution blowing into the city from neighbouring industrial southern China.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed leader Donald Tsang has pledged to tackle the issue, describing it in one speech as “a matter of life and death”, but air quality in the high-rise city has continued to deteriorate.

Figures released last week found that the number of days in which roadside air quality in Hong Kong reached dangerous levels was up almost one fifth in 2008 compared to the previous year. – dpa

One In Five Say They May Leave Over Pollution

Bad air could cause bigger exodus than brain drain in ’90s, poll finds

SCMP – Cheung Chi-fai – Jan 06, 2009

Air pollution has the potential to cause an exodus from Hong Kong bigger than the brain drain prompted by pre-handover jitters in the 1990s, a survey has indicated.

One in five residents, according to the poll, are considering leaving the city to escape the contaminated air, while one in 10 are seriously considering such a move or already have plans to go because of health fears.

That could mean an exodus of 700,000 to 1.4 million people, eclipsing the pre-handover brain drain, during which 450,000 people are estimated to have left.

“It is an astonishing figure and it is bigger than the brain drain. But it is just caused by the air,” said Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project at Baptist University, which conducted the poll for the Hong Kong-based think-tank Civic Exchange.

The survey of more than 1,000 people, of whom some 3 per cent were expatriates, also found that like the earlier brain drain, the exodus could be led by high-income earners and highly educated people from the professional and managerial ranks.

One in 10 respondents to the poll, conducted in September and October last year, also said they had heard of foreigners turning down job offers because of air pollution.

Professor DeGolyer said the pre-handover brain drain had led the government to spend billions of dollars to expand the university system.

While many people who left before the handover eventually returned, air pollution had since emerged as a major factor affecting people’s decisions on whether to work in Hong Kong, he said.

Citing a recent report on the future of Asian financial centres released by the City of London Corporation, Civic Exchange chief Christine Loh Kung-wai said Singapore had replaced Hong Kong as the third global financial centre after New York and London.

“They do think Hong Kong is a good place, except for air quality,” she said, adding that the city’s “particular social problem” had turned into a “business problem”.

Ms Loh said that while Hong Kong had increasingly come under an international spotlight because of its air quality problems, the survey presented the “worried voice” of the silent public, who were predominantly Hong Kong Chinese.

Professor DeGolyer said there was a “silence epidemic” in regard to air pollution as many people had become so frustrated that they had given up talking to the government.

Compared to the results of a similar survey conducted in 2001, the results of the latest poll showed that more people were concerned about air pollution and that most believed the problem was a top priority for officials to deal with.

In an attempt to mitigate the effects of air pollution, two-thirds said they had closed windows and turned on air conditioning when the air was particularly polluted. Half of them said they suffered from coughing and itchy eyes, while a third said they had to go to clinics for pollution-related health problems.

Earlier studies have found that air pollution causes 1,600 premature deaths and HK$2 billion in direct economic losses each year.

Pollution Driving Hong Kong Residents Out

Australia Network News – 5th Jan 2009
Air pollution in parts of Hong Kong last year reached its highest level since records began. [AFP]

Air pollution in parts of Hong Kong last year reached its highest level since records began. [AFP]

A new survey in Hong Kong has found that one in five residents is considering leaving because of the city’s poor air quality.

The survey, by the Civic Exchange think tank, has again raised fears over Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

It found that over a million residents have thought of leaving, including 500,000 who are “seriously considering or already planning to move”.

They include top earners and highly educated workers, raising questions over Hong Kong’s ability to attract and retain top talent.

Air pollution in parts of Hong Kong last year reached its highest level since records began.

1 In 5 Considering Leaving Hong Kong Due To Pollution: Survey

AFP – 5 Jan 2009

HONG KONG (AFP) — One in five Hong Kong residents is considering leaving the city because of its dire air quality, a survey released Monday has found, raising fears over the financial hub’s competitiveness.

The findings equate to 1.4 million residents thinking about moving away, including 500,000 who are “seriously considering or already planning to move,” according to the survey by the think tank Civic Exchange.

Those most seriously thinking about fleeing the city include top earners and highly educated workers, raising questions over the southern Chinese city’s ability to attract and retain top talent, the report’s authors found.

“People from all sectors of society know that air pollution is making them sick,” said Michael DeGolyer, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“Many are concerned to the point they are considering leaving Hong Kong, including local professionals.”

DeGolyer added that the survey of more than 1,000 residents debunked the myth that concerns about air pollution were confined to the city’s foreign residents, as only three percent of the respondents were expats.

The research also found that concern about pollution had risen rapidly since 2001, and that managers and administrators were some of the most worried.

“And Singapore wants them,” DeGolyer told reporters, referring to the long-standing rivalry between the two Asian cities to attract top talent.

Air pollution across some parts of Hong Kong last year reached its highest level since records began, official figures released last week showed.

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department said tough measures had helped reduce the levels of several pollutants in recent years and it was working closely with neighbouring Guangdong province, whose factories are the source of much of the city’s pollution.

“The government shares the aspiration of the public for clean air and has been implementing strong measures to control our emissions at source, particularly from road transport and power generation,” the spokesman said, in a statement.

A Civic Exchange report last year said that at least 10,000 deaths were caused every year in Hong Kong, Macau and southern China by the region’s worsening air pollution.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang has called improving air quality a “matter of life and death” for the city, but has still to introduce new air quality standards, 20 years after the current set was brought in.

Hong Kong Air Pollution Worst Since Records Began

Hong Kong – January 3, 2009 – 8:06PM – The Age

Air pollution across large swathes of Hong Kong last year reached its highest level since records began, despite government efforts to improve the environment, official figures showed yesterday.

Hong Kong suffers high air pollution, caused partly by huge numbers of factories over the border in southern China, and there have been fears the problem could compromise its position as an international finance centre.

The number of hours for which street-level pollution exceeded the danger level in some of the city’s busiest districts rose by 14 per cent in 2008, according to Environmental Protection Department figures.

The department said air pollution levels in the three main shopping and business districts were dangerous for more than 2,000 hours last year — the highest figure since it began taking roadside recordings in 2000.

An Air Pollution Index (API) of more than 100 is considered dangerous, indicating immediate health risks, especially to people with respiratory or heart problems.

The latest figures are for Central, Hong Kong’s main business district, and the Causeway Bay and Mongkok shopping areas.

They were released as Hong Kong’s acting environment secretary proposed a ban on running engines of parked vehicles, the latest in a series of measures to improve the city’s air quality.

The city’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang has called improving air quality a “matter of life and death” for Hong Kong, and said he expects the full backing of Chinese authorities.

A report released last year by the Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange said that at least 10,000 deaths every year in Hong Kong, Macau and southern China are caused by the area’s worsening air pollution.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Department cautioned that the figures did not give a full picture of air quality because they reflected only the level of the pollutant that posed the greatest health risk.

However, Edwin Lau, director of pressure group Friends of the Earth Hong Kong, said this meant the true picture could be even worse than the figures indicated.

“You can look at the data from another perspective and say the problem could be even more worrying if the levels of the other pollutants were also taken into account,” he told AFP.

Lau said the government needed more effective policies to improve roadside air quality, such as banning heavy diesel vehicles from driving in busy districts during peak hours.

Air Is Cleaner, Government Claims

Despite high pollution readings, air is cleaner, government claims

Daniel Sin – SCMP – Jan 03, 2009

Concentration of Pollutants

The Environmental Protection Department has insisted Hong Kong’s air quality has improved over the past decade, despite its air pollution index showing big rises in the number of hours pollution hit dangerous levels.

A departmental spokeswoman said concentrations of individual pollutants were a better means than the API to assess the long-term air quality trend and had been decreasing over the past 10 years. These air pollutants include respirable suspended particles (RSP), nitrogen oxides (NOX), sulfur dioxide and ozone.

The department was responding to a South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) report that showed the number of hours in which street-level pollution exceeded dangerous levels at three crowded areas had increased over the past year, in some cases to record levels.

The department’s data shows the average level of roadside RSP last year was 72 micrograms per cubic metre, down 13.3 per cent from 2004. In the same period, the concentration of nitrogen oxides fell 2 per cent, while that of sulfur dioxide was constant.

Statistics from general stations suggested that the concentrations of individual pollutants they recorded had dropped by an average of 1.7 per cent to 5.3 per cent each year between 2004 and last year.

The department attributed the improvement to the success of control measures taken by Guangdong province in recent years.

To improve regional air quality, the Hong Kong and Guangdong governments agreed in 2002 to reduce the emissions of four major air pollutants by 20 to 55 per cent from their 1997 levels by 2010. To achieve this, they drew up a regional air quality management plan focusing on key sources of emissions, the spokeswoman said.

But Simon Ng Ka-wing of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology questions this.

“The levels of RSPs and NOX concentration recorded last year still exceeded the respective one-year air quality objectives, and have in fact breached our lenient air quality objective every year over the last 10 years,” he said. “They are much higher than the safety margins recommended by the World Health Organisation, which is 20 micrograms per cubic metre for RSP and 40 for NOX.”

Last year, the average concentration of NOX at roadside stations was 99 micrograms per cubic metre.

“Roadside air quality is still posing a serious health threat to Hongkongers,” said Dr Ng.

Mike Kilburn, of think-tank Civic Exchange, said the government should adopt the WHO’s air quality guidelines.