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March, 2008:

Leaders Doing Nothing To Clean Up Filthy Air

Updated on Mar 26, 2008 – SCMP (Letters to Editor)

Wolfgang Ehmann makes an excellent point – each individual must contribute to a clean environment (“Dispelling some myths about incinerators”, March 20). But I disagree with his conclusion, that sustainability is not only having the right leader wisely choose the right solution.

To paraphrase [New York Times columnist] Thomas L. Friedman: the greenest thing you can do is choose the right leaders, because they write the rules.

He said: “Whatever any of us does individually matters … But when leaders change the rules, you get scale change across the whole marketplace.”

I have lived in Hong Kong for three years and have yet to hear Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s administration make one meaningful statement – much less take meaningful action – about the city’s pollution.

It seems that neither the Hong Kong authorities nor their Beijing masters are in control. The people who really run this city – the power companies and the moguls with myriad factories in Guangdong – are not accountable to anyone. With each breath of vile air, everyone living near the Pearl River Delta pays the price. On bad days, even The Peak sees particulate levels more than double the EU’s most hazardous limits. Would Mr Ehmann really trust Mr Tsang’s administration to install an incinerator “with the highest health and safety standards”? Please, the authorities don’t even require that bus companies meet emission standards.

The trash isn’t piling up in the streets, but Hong Kong is far dirtier than Naples.

Every mother in this city knows children with serious breathing problems: babies on nebulisers before they can walk, three-year-olds on steroids for asthma.

So, to Hong Kong’s rulers, both the de facto ones and those who really run the show – is this your legacy, turning Hong Kong into an ash heap that poisons its children?

A. K. Sherman, The Peak

A billion seen living in cities by 2030

Stephen Chen
Updated on Mar 26, 2008 – SCMP

China’s urbanisation will continue on an unprecedented scale and pace, to the point where 1 billion people will be living in mainland cities by 2030, according to research by the McKinsey Global Institute.

That means in 20 years Chinese cities will have to provide jobs, housing, food, medical insurance and pension funds for 350 million more people – more than the present population of the United States.

Meanwhile, about 5 billion square metres of roads will have to be paved, 170 mass-transit systems built and 50,000 new skyscrapers – equivalent to 10 New York cities – will appear on the mainland.

Urbanisation at such speed and volume would put huge pressure on the leadership, the report said.

That pressure would include securing enough public funding for social services, dealing with demand and supply for land, energy and water, and protecting the environment. The pressure would intensify despite strong economic growth.

Smaller cities would bear the biggest brunt because they will face insurmountable hurdles in land development, job creation and skilled labour, financing and energy supply.

The researchers said the best solution would be to create more than 20 super-cities as big as Shanghai.

Their argument is partly based on historical records that indicate large, concentrated cities in China perform more effectively than smaller ones.

Concentrated growth would have many positive economic implications, including greater per capita gross domestic product, more efficient use of energy, low arable land loss rates, more efficient mass transit and more effective pollution control.

Policymakers could steer China in that direction by offering favourable land policies, infrastructure investment and preferential political treatment, the report said.

Particulate Air Pollution Short Term Effects

School of Public Health, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.

BACKGROUND: Numerous studies have shown that ambient air pollution and smoking are both associated with increased mortality, but until now there has been little evidence as to whether the effects of these 2 factors combined are greater than the sum of their individual effects. We assessed whether smokers are subject to additional mortality risk from air pollution relative to never-smokers.

METHODS: This study included 10,833 Chinese men in Hong Kong who died at the age of 30 or above during the period 1 January to 31 December 1998. Relatives who registered for deceased persons were interviewed about the deceased’s smoking history and other personal lifestyle factors about 10 years before death. Poisson regression for daily number of deaths was fitted to estimate excess risks per 10 microg/m increase in particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter <10 microm (PM10) in male smokers and never-smokers in stratified data, and additional excess risk for smokers relative to never-smokers in combined data.

RESULTS: In smokers there was a significant excess risk associated with PM10 for all natural causes and cardio-respiratory diseases for men age 30 years or older and men 65 or older. For all natural causes, greater excess risk associated with PM10 was observed for smokers relative to never-smokers: 1.9% (95% confidence interval = 0.3% to 3.6%) in men age 30 and older and 2.3% (0.4% to 4.3%) in those age 65 and older.

CONCLUSIONS: Ambient particulate air pollution is associated with greater excess mortality in male smokers compared with never-smokers.

Island Eastern Corridor Boardwalk Idea

What do you think of the Island Eastern Corridor boardwalk idea?

Updated on Mar 24, 2008 – SCMP

The proposal by Eastern District Council to the Planning Department for a boardwalk under the Island Eastern Corridor is welcome (“Promenade plan to open eastern harbourfront”, March 20).

However, more comprehensive access to our harbour is needed.

Forward-thinking cities such as Sydney enable public access to almost all of their waterfront, whereas in Hong Kong prime sites next to the harbour (such as in North Point or Sheung Wan) are now lying empty or are used for storage or occasional truck maintenance.

We support an exciting proposal to create a cycle path along the whole of the Hong Kong Island waterfront, linking Kennedy Town to Central with existing partial access around the Wan Chai-Causeway Bay area, through below the Island Eastern Corridor, to Quarry Bay Park promenade and on to Shau Kei Wan.

Such a route would serve leisure riders, commuters and tourists.

As well as revealing our hidden jewel, the harbour, it would allow easy and pleasant access to many locations and boost business activity with harbourfront kiosks and bicycle rental.

Also, of course, more cyclists mean lower emissions, less congestion, less noise pollution and improved health.

In support of this proposed path, a mass bike ride will take place on Sunday April 6, starting at Cadogan Street Temporary Garden, Kennedy Town, at 10am. Following the ride, a letter detailing the benefits of the proposal will be delivered to the Planning Department in North Point. Further details from or Facebook “2nd Waterfront Bike Ride”.

On the first ride in November, more than 100 riders showed their support for a harbourfront cycle path. Organisers are hoping for even more this time.

Martin Turner, Hong Kong Cycling Alliance

Smart Air Conditioning Sensors Make KMB Buses Go Green

Scarlett Chiang
Updated on Mar 24, 2008 – SCMP

Kowloon Motor Bus is determined to keep its cool when it comes to the environment.
All of its 3,600 air-conditioned buses now have sensors that fine-tune the inside temperature in response to the atmosphere outside.

The sensors save fuel as air conditioning is used only when it is needed.

Principal engineer Shum Yuet-hung said the cabin temperature was affected by the number of passengers, the air flow at bus stops and the temperature difference between inside and outside.

“The ambient sensor fine-tunes the temperature in the bus automatically to suit different cooling requirements based on the temperature difference,” he said. “It enables the air-conditioning system to adjust its cooling according to actual needs and this helps save energy.”

Mr Shum said fuel consumption increased 1 per cent when the outside temperature increased by one degree Celsius.

“If the air conditioning is set at a certain degree and does not change, energy will be wasted in cool weather.”

KMB sets its air conditioning at 23 degrees and the humidity level at 40 per cent to 70 per cent.

The bus company said the device came into its own in spring, autumn and on rainy days, when there were big temperature differences between day and night.

The sensor aims to keep the temperature inside the bus at between 22.5 degrees and 25.5 degrees, depending on the temperature outside.

KMB introduced an enhanced air-conditioning system in 2005, which includes the ambient sensors.

The system’s “intelligent” temperature control makes adjustments every four seconds.

Olympic Pollution

The Ottawa Citizen – Saturday, March 22, 2008

While debate has raged in recent days over whether countries or athletes should boycott the Beijing Olympics on political grounds, another kind of boycott has been quietly gaining strength — on environmental grounds.

One of the world’s leading long-distance runners, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, has pulled out of the Olympic marathon because of the risk Beijing’s pollution poses to his health. A Canadian equestrian has said she chose not to try out for Canada’s Olympic team because of concerns about heat and humidity — exacerbated by pollution — in Hong Kong, where the equestrian events will be held.

In an attempt to protect athletes, Olympic committees around the world are considering everything from issuing masks — the British Olympic Committee is looking at this option — to having inhalers at the ready even for athletes who are not asthmatic. Some say that all athletes should wear contact lenses to protect their eyes from pollutants. Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, concedes that some competitions may have to be postponed or delayed due to pollution. All of which should surprise no one.

Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. It was so when the Olympic Games was awarded and it may be even more polluted by the time the Olympics begins, despite China’s assurances that air quality will have improved by then. In the middle of an unprecedented growth spurt, fuelled, in part, by the Olympics itself, that is tough to do.

Pressure on Pearl River Delta Manufacturers

Feeling the squeeze

Stricter controls and a labour shortage are putting pressure on Pearl River Delta manufacturers

Joseph Cheng – Updated on Mar 22, 2008 – SCMP

Industrial upgrading is the natural path of economic development. Since the mid-1990s, Guangdong’s leaders have been according top priority to upgrading industries in the Pearl River Delta, to maintain the province’s domestic and international competitiveness. The provincial authorities look to Japan and the “four little dragons of Asia” – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea – as models for Guangdong’s gradual development of hi-tech, high-value-added industries.

The growth of Guangdong’s exports has indeed been impressive, but the total value is relatively small: of every US$100 in exports, only US$16 is retained in the province.

Two years ago, the Guangdong authorities began to impose limits on factories that were inefficient consumers of energy or produced a lot of pollutants. They were told to close or move out of the delta. At that time, the Hong Kong government and industrialists did not take this warning seriously.

In recent years, the Hong Kong government has lobbied central and provincial officials to seek a longer transition period for the city’s factory owners in the delta. This lobbying, however, is not a solution to the long-term challenge.

Even in the absence of any concrete plans by Guangdong for the removal of industries, low-value-added, export-led processing operations in the delta have faced difficulties. Many Hong Kong taxi drivers used to own such factories.

At this stage, the Chinese leadership is emphasising sustainable development and environmental protection. These are important indicators on local cadres’ report cards. If they don’t perform as expected in these areas, they will have no chance of promotion, and may even lose their jobs.

Then there are the irresistible market forces: the rise in wages and the devaluation of the US dollar (that is, the appreciation of the yuan) are the two key factors.

With the improvement in rural incomes and inflation hitting the cities, a shortage of migrant labour has emerged in the past two years across the delta and in most coastal cities. Manufacturers have had to raise wages to recruit workers: 800 yuan a month is no longer attractive; 1,000 yuan a month is acceptable, depending on circumstances; 1,200 yuan a month will solve all recruitment problems. After all, wages for migrant workers had been stagnant for about a decade.

The yuan appreciated about 7 per cent against the US dollar in 2007; and by another 3 per cent so far this year. With profit margins as low as 5 per cent at some export processing factories, it was no surprise that many had to close.

The options are: moving up the value-added chain or moving out of the delta. Cheaper labour is available elsewhere in Southeast Asia, for example in Vietnam and Cambodia, or the central Chinese provinces such as Hunan and Jiangxi . The metal-producing city of Chenzhou in Hunan attracted much attention in Hong Kong even before the Lunar New Year snowstorms.

A less conspicuous aspect of “building a harmonious society” on the mainland has been the improvement in labourers’ working conditions and basic rights. The implementation of the Labour Contract Law in January led to some sudden dismissals in delta factories. But, in the foreseeable future, regional shortages of senior technicians and other workers will remain the trend in the Chinese labour market. This adds to the impetus of manufacturers moving to the interior provinces.

These trends constitute a severe challenge to the Hong Kong economy. Trade and logistics services are two of the city’s economic pillars. In 2006, they provided about 840,000 jobs. The upgrading of some delta factories, and the relocation inland of others, will generate new demands on these services. They must adapt to these new demands to maintain their comparative advantage.

On the other hand, the Chinese leadership has been trying to shift the momentum for economic development from exports to domestic demand. Some of the factories moving to the central provinces from the delta may also choose to adjust their business strategies to reduce their dependence on overseas markets and turn their attention to domestic sales.

If a severe economic slowdown emerges in the US, this adjustment may accelerate. This will be another new challenge to Hong Kong’s business and logistics services.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong

Incinerators Better Than Landfills

Updated on Mar 22, 2008 – SCMP

I refer to the letter from Tracy Lai (“Incinerator is a major polluter”, March 11).

I assume that the Hong Kong government would only consider the latest technology with flue gas filters for any such facility.

When comparing what we do now (landfills) versus waste incineration it might be wise to choose the lesser of two evils.

In landfills all toxins can escape, uncontrolled, into the water and the atmosphere. Considerable amounts of the greenhouse gas methane (much worse than carbon dioxide) are produced and escape into the atmosphere. Again, the process is uncontrolled.

There are different kinds of incinerators. However, what they all have in common is that the waste is reduced to around 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the original volume. They produce bottom ash, fly ash and combustion gases, similar to a coal-fired power plant.

Dangerous dioxins and furans are broken down to non-hazardous substances in the high temperature combustion chamber of the incinerator.

Bottom ash can be disposed off in landfills.

Fly ash and gases pass through sophisticated flue gas purifiers, which remove heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid and fine particulate. As in any combustion, carbon dioxide is produced.

The hot gases that leave the combustion chamber are used to produce steam to drive turbines and generators to produce electricity. Incinerators produce up to 50 per cent less greenhouse gases than landfills (a better carbon footprint). Also, incinerators produce a considerable amount of electricity, which will reduce coal and gas burning in power stations.

Incinerators reduce solid waste going to landfills by 90 to 95 per cent. The hazardous waste (heavy metals, etc) can be disposed of properly.

Landfills are ticking time bombs. The stench is a nuisance, not to mention a potential health hazard.

Peter A Thuler, Sai Kung

Sweeping Height Limits Proposed In Mid-Levels

Bid to ease congestion would hit owners of older buildings

Olga Wong, Yvonne Liu and Eva Wu – Updated on Mar 21, 2008 – SCMP

The Town Planning Board has proposed wide-ranging height limits on buildings in Mid-Levels in a move that could ease the area’s severe congestion problems.

But it would deal a blow to owners of older buildings hoping to reap a windfall from redevelopment.

The proposals are aimed at keeping the area’s development density at existing levels, preventing new high-rises from blocking the view of the Hong Kong Island ridgeline and allowing airflows to sweep down from The Peak to Central.

They have emerged from a review believed to be the last to be conducted on prime urban districts.

Similar reviews have already been carried out on North Point, Happy Valley and Ho Man Tin.

Government planners insist the proposed height restrictions would not undermine property owners’ rights.

They say restrictions on plot ratios – the formula that determines development density – and gross floor area could also be introduced if the public endorses the idea.

Jones Lang LaSalle international director Lau Chun-kong said it was good news for residents who enjoyed living in Mid-Levels as it would prevent overdevelopment and congestion and preserve the view.

“But to the owners of old buildings who planned to sell their units to developers, it is bad news,” he said. “The owners will see the redevelopment potential of their properties decline.”

A source in the Planning Department said that under the new rules, all buildings could be redeveloped to their present heights except the landmark 69-storey Tower Three of the luxurious Tregunter development, once the tallest residential building in Asia.

If it was redeveloped, the maximum height would be 35 storeys, although the same plot ratio would be allowed.

The proposals announced yesterday cover 230 hectares in Mid-Levels West.

The area is bound by Bonham Road, Caine Road and Kennedy Road to the north; Bowen Road to the east; Pok Fu Lam Road to the west and the Pok Fu Lam Country Park to the south.

Height restrictions ranging from 115 metres to 320 metres above sea level are to be introduced to the commercial and residential sites in the area. Higher buildings are generally allowed on sites to the north of Robinson Road, which is more densely populated.

An air ventilation assessment was carried out to assess the existing wind flow and the likely impact of the proposed building heights on wind flow for pedestrians.

“The study shows that we must maintain at least three green paths to allow the air to flow to Central,” the source said, referring to areas around the Botanical and Zoological Garden, the University of Hong Kong campus and the Peak Tram.

Congestion has posed a mounting threat to the environment of one of the city’s most expensive residential areas, despite a so-called moratorium imposed in 1972 aimed at keeping development in line with traffic capacity.

Traffic flow in the area is consistently the heaviest in the Transport Department’s annual review of 11 districts and is expected to worsen when 15 new developments are completed.

Savills investment department director Gabriel Cheng Hon-wah said developers would no longer offer aggressive prices to buy flats in old buildings like Merry Terrace.

Green Sense president Roy Tam Hoi-pong said the proposals provided guidelines for future urban renewal in the district.

But he said some height restrictions were still too high, allowing buildings of 30 storeys. He also worried that rezoning some government sites for residential use would further increase the development density.

Central and Western District councillor Cheng Lai-king said the changes would help to improve living conditions in the area.

Urban Renewal Strategy Ruining Communities

Updated on Mar 21, 2008 – SCMP

It is widely accepted that the Urban Renewal Authority, through its development projects, has done a lot of damage in Hong Kong, destroying streets which had a unique local character and cohesive community network. Sometimes its policies have led to social unrest.

It demolished “Wedding Card Street” and is now turning its attention on Graham Street, the most historic street market in Hong Kong and a top tourist attraction.

If it had any sense, the URA would not pull down the majority of the 40 buildings in the area to make way for a podium development with four high-rise towers on top.

It should make conservation of the historic street market a starting point by regenerating the existing buildings. Its officials should understand that having four more skyscrapers on that small site is just too much for residents in Central – too much pollution caused by the wall effect, too much traffic, and too little respect for the needs of the community (there is no other market in Central).

Even more problematic is the fact that once the URA declares an area to be a redevelopment site, property owners have no choice but to sell to this single buyer.

The whole process is an infringement of private property rights. Many owners have not been able to buy back properties in the same area with the URA’s compensation.

With such a bad track record, it is clear the role of the URA must be reviewed.

In terms of trying to preserve Hong Kong’s urban fabric, its broad-brush approach of clearing sites for comprehensive development areas is doing more harm than good, increasing development intensity in some already congested areas.

The fundamentals of the urban renewal strategy must be overhauled.

I agree that a district-based approach is needed for urban planning and heritage conservation but the lead should be taken by the government, with the community fully engaged, to impose sensible planning restrictions or to declare historic areas conservation zones (for example, parts of Central), which are protected. Property owners should be encouraged to maintain and renovate their old buildings.

The URA has done a good job in the past in helping owners renovate dilapidated buildings and its future role should focus on this aspect of its work.

Katty Law, Central