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June 12th, 2008:

Hong Kong Faces

Fanny W. Y. Fung – Updated on Jun 12, 2008 – SCMP

In the mid-1980s, after taking his degree in England, Richard Au Yeung Sei-kwok took the unusual step of working on the mainland. After years of commercial success, the entrepreneur has taken another unorthodox step – pursuing the opportunities thrown up by emissions trading

Businessmen and environmental activists may often be in confrontation, but Richard Au Yeung Sei-kwok has decided to play both roles.

Having worked in the commercial arena for 24 years and run his own business for 12, the 48-year-old has now dedicated himself to the emissions trading project agreed under the Kyoto Protocol to fight climate change.

“Profit and conservation are not mutually exclusive – if there is a mechanism to commercialise environmental protection incentives,” says Mr Au Yeung, chairman and chief executive of carbon credit trading agent Enew, a company he set up in May last year.

He came across the business opportunity by chance, when he learned about the international convention and the idea of carbon trading in a conversation with a Japanese friend in 2003.

“At first I didn’t quite believe this idea. I thought: get cash for making less pollution? Is there really such a free lunch in the world?”

But after researching the topic and studying the protocol, the entrepreneur – who had run various kinds of businesses including property, recreation facilities and advertising – decided the environmental project was profitable.

With his extensive personal network on the mainland, he started lobbying municipal government officials, farm owners and industrialists to engage in the trade.

It was not an easy task. Although the nation had signed the protocol as early as 1998, many provincial and city officials knew nothing about the issue.

“They had never heard of carbon credit trading. When I approached one official in a northeastern province about the matter, he said: buy coal? You should go to Shanxi !” he recalls with a laugh.

He also visited farms and explained to owners how the straw of rice plants and pig faeces could be used for generating power, and he went to factories to teach industrialists how to cut emissions. It took him about 18 months to two years from the beginning of lobbying to the completion of a transaction.

“I didn’t know the production process was so wasteful until I really saw such a large volume of materials could be saved up for alternative uses.”

Even as a boss, Mr Au Yeung has to withstand tough working conditions. “It is very unpleasant. I need to go into all the dirty places with pig faeces, coal burners or, in the case of paper factories, scraps floating in the choking air.” Even though he has six employees, he insists on going to sites himself. “It is worthwhile going and I am used to harsh conditions.”

He says his adaptability to hardship comes from his early training on the mainland. Although educated overseas, in 1985 he opted to develop his career in the then backward mainland after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from Newcastle University in England, an unusual decision for graduates at that time.

“I joined a local printing firm after returning home from studying abroad in 1984. One year later I was given two choices: to stay at the company’s Hong Kong headquarters or to go to the mainland and help develop the China market,” he says.

He was sent to work in northeastern provinces and Shandong , and his career subsequently took him to Hubei , Hunan , Guangdong and Jiangxi .

“I visit the mainland frequently and I learn new things from there every year.”

Mr Au Yeung is also a standing committee member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and a delegate to the Heilongjiang provincial committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

He said he hoped measures recently announced by the Hong Kong government to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol would help clean the air. The city is included in the protocol as part of China.

Adoption Of WHO Standards Urged

Mary Ann Benitez – Updated on Jun 12, 2008 – SCMP

Hong Kong should quickly adopt World Health Organisation standards on air quality in light of its enormous impact on people’s health, a Civic Exchange study says.

Hospital bed-days, lost productivity and doctor visits associated with polluted air cost 1.8 billion yuan (HK$2.03 billion) a year in the Pearl River Delta, HK$1.1 billion in Hong Kong and HK$18 million in Macau, the study said.

Civic Exchange chief executive officer Christine Loh Kung-wai said: “One thing that the government does not do here is to link health and control of air pollution.

“You and I know that bad air pollution means it’s bad for our health, but what we are not able to do is to understand that in much greater depth,” she said. “By doing long-term health tracking and studies to track effectiveness of policies – that is the only real way to inform policymakers whether any of the initiatives that they roll out are having a beneficial impact on public health.”

She welcomed a review of the 20-year-old Air Quality Objectives that the government said would be completed by next year.

“The question is whether they will tighten [air quality standards] to WHO standards and then announce measures and a time frame … to reach them, or set looser standards,” she said.

Anthony Hedley, chair professor of the department of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said: “From the public health point of view, we regard the adoption of WHO guidelines an absolute imperative and priority.”

Ms Loh added: “The problem has been the government feels that if it’s a standard they set, they have to pass it. But they are forgetting that even other societies have not necessarily met the WHO guidelines, but they use it as a measure of public health risk and … therefore to come up with measures to reduce air pollution.”

Alexis Lau Kai-hon, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Science and Technology, said revising regional objectives in line with WHO guidelines “would provide powerful drivers to improve air quality and public health.”

Coming Clean

Updated on Jun 12, 2008 – SCMP

Extraordinarily, Hong Kong has yet to make an explicit policy link between air quality and public health. We all know that air pollution affects our health yet, in public policy terms, the weighting towards our well-being is missing. This must change, otherwise the government will never quite get its priorities right about environmental protection and its duty to improve air quality, so that it no longer poses a daily threat to people. The same can be said of Guangdong, one of the wealthiest parts of the country; health gains from social and economic development will otherwise be compromised.

Research released yesterday using data from 2006 shows that air pollution levels were attributable to 10,000 deaths in Hong Kong, Macau and the Pearl River Delta, with 94 per cent of these occurring across the border. Moreover, air pollution is responsible for some 440,000 annual hospital bed-days and 11 million outpatient visits annually throughout the whole region. Industrialised areas such as Guangzhou and Foshan suffer from very high levels of sulfur dioxide, which is associated with cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and death. These figures could be lowered with improved air quality; these premature deaths and illnesses are avoidable.

The cost of these hospital bed-days, lost productivity and doctor visits associated with the impact on people’s health amounts to 1.8 billion yuan (HK$2.03 billion) a year in the delta, HK$1.1 billion in Hong Kong and HK$18 million in Macau. Adjusted for differences in gross domestic product, the health-related monetary costs of air pollution in the delta are seven times higher than those in Hong Kong. These represent only the economic losses, and do not take into account pain and suffering, or put a value on life. Research also shows the lack of local studies in the delta, Hong Kong and Macau on air pollution and health. The public and government policymakers will still not fully understand the impact of poor air quality on health without long-term studies that measure the total years of life lost to air pollution. Conducting studies that provide feedback essential to evaluate the effectiveness of air pollution control measures will help governments shape policy. If public health was a policy priority, we would invest more in health-related research.

It is now indisputable that smoggy days have increased dramatically over the past two decades. Although some pollutant types and sources have decreased, others have remained steady or increased. This is particularly true in the delta’s industrial areas. Only with frequent reviews of air pollution data and an evaluation of policy measures will it be possible to devise appropriate strategies. The authorities need to review regional emissions data for last year, as satellite information indicates that conditions have worsened since 2003.

Authorities in the delta, Hong Kong and Macau can exercise leadership by tightening air quality standards. Replacing the existing piecemeal approach with a total air quality management framework focused on public health is the first step. It has proved successful in controlling emissions elsewhere in the world.

Taking collaborative action before Hong Kong and Guangzhou host the East Asian and Asian Games in 2009 and 2010, respectively, will allow the region to take advantage of lessons learned from Beijing’s attempts to improve air quality for the Olympics, and for the region to position itself as a leader in fighting air pollution. A powerful short-term measure would be to use cleaner fuels not only in vehicles and ships but also in factories using power generators. This won’t be easy at a time when energy prices are high, but policymakers must spell out the damage to people’s health if they are to rally support for change.

This is the right time for such a change. National policy is shifting towards environmental protection; Hong Kong and Guangdong, as the wealthiest parts of the country, should be the first to make an explicit health link.

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

Young And Old Pay High Price For Bad Delta Air

Mary Ann Benitez – Updated on Jun 12, 2008 – SCMP

Children and the elderly in the greater Pearl River Delta are paying a high price for worsening air pollution, researchers warn, following a study that puts the health impact of air pollution at 6.7 billion yuan a year.

Poor air quality is causing 10,000 premature deaths a year, 440,000 hospital bed days and 11 million doctors’ visits in Hong Kong, Macau and the Pearl River Delta, states the study, entitled “A Price Too High”, by Civic Exchange.

A first in terms of pinning down the health cost of bad air in the region, the study was conducted over nine months by leading health, science and public policy experts who analysed ambient air pollution from 2003-2006, before projecting its health impact.

This impact is steep: HK$1.1 billion a year in Hong Kong, HK$18 million in Macau and 1.8 billion yuan a year in the Pearl River Delta, the study says.

“If adjusted for differences in gross domestic product, the health-related monetary costs of air pollution in the PRD amounts to 6.7 billion yuan,” said Anthony Hedley, chair professor of the University of Hong Kong’s department of community medicine, who noted the estimates were “very conservative”.

The costs represent only the economic losses and do not take into account the pain and suffering or put a value on life.

The team said air pollution was hitting children and the elderly, the most vulnerable members of society, particularly hard.

“It will begin to erode progress in life expectancy, but more than that it will make people sick before they die,” Professor Hedley said.

The scientists said businesses were concerned about air pollution because they had difficulty recruiting people from overseas.

“My concern is lung health, growth and development of a child who is growing up in Mong Kok or Causeway Bay,” Professor Hedley said.

He spoke of a cumulative effect on children and adolescents who have been exposed to poor air quality in the past 10-15 years; and the aged, who might require more medical attention than expected.

The team urged the government to adopt an overall total air quality management framework, provide real-time data to the public, act to cut emissions from land and marine transport, adopt a clean-fuel initiative, regularly review policies and standards, and fund research.