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July 13th, 2008:

Rain vs. Pollution in June

Thought clean air was the silver lining in rainy June? Think again

Elaine Wu – Updated on Jul 13, 2008 – SCMP

Many thought that if there was something worth celebrating about the 24 days of rain last month, it would be that the air would be cleaner.

Rain normally washes pollutants from the air. Not last month.

Although June was Hong Kong’s wettest month in 125 years of recorded weather history, Environmental Protection Department figures show pollution was far worse than in the same month in 2007 and 2006.

The department recorded 47 hours of high air pollution levels, compared to 16 hours in June last year and only 3.5 hours in June 2006.

This has everyone – from meteorologists to clean-air advocates – scratching their heads.

“I don’t have a clue as to why we would have more high-air-pollution index [API] days,” Leung Wing-mo, senior scientific officer at the Hong Kong Observatory, said.

“When it is raining, the suspended particulates and other pollutants will normally be washed away. We have had only six days without rain for the whole month.”

Air pollution index readings are categorised as low, medium, high, very high and severe. Levels last month were low to high.

Christian Masset, chairman of Clear the Air, said his organisation had already sought expert help to understand the phenomenon.

“I can’t recall [this happening before],” he said. “There is something we don’t know that we need to understand. There must be a link with heavier rain and air pollution.”

A departmental spokeswoman said that while rain does affect air quality in the short run, other factors such as wind direction, wind speed, solar radiation, cloud cover, humidity and temperature played a role.

She said it was not appropriate to gauge air quality by comparing data from a certain month with that from the same month a year earlier.

“A more scientific way to assess whether air quality is improving or deteriorating is to look at the changes in average pollutant concentrations on an annual basis,” she said.

The department found that average air pollutant concentrations last year were comparable to levels in 2005 and 2006, and better than those in 2004, she said.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, chief executive of think-tank Civic Exchange, said: “When there is a lot of rain, the rain does pat down emissions temporarily. But we must not forget that pollution is being emitted all the time.

“As for wind, if the wind is strong and blows away the pollution, that’s when we have clearer days. The summer months have the best visibility due to wind direction. This does not mean pollution is not being emitted, it is just being carried elsewhere faster.”

Green Bill May Target Electronics

Loretta Fong – Updated on Jul 13, 2008 – SCMP

Electrical appliances could be one of the next categories of goods targeted by the Eco-Product Responsibility Bill, the environment chief said yesterday.

The bill, which aims to provide a legal framework for manufacturer responsibility schemes, first set its sights on plastic bags, which are to be taxed by the middle of next year.

Speaking on an RTHK radio programme, Secretary for Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said the administration would take into account the amount of pollution produced and the timeliness of a category of products when deciding which would be next regulated under the bill.

“With economic growth, consumer spending incentives will also increase. It is often quite common for people to dump electrical appliances,” he said.

Waste such as tyres and plastic containers were also on the list for consideration, he added.

Mr Yau also said the 50 cent tax on plastic bags would be implemented by the middle of next year. He said the government was still working out the details.

“Subsidiary legislation will be required when implementing the bill. We will use our time during the summer vacation before the next legislative term, so as to get ready for working out the details,” he said.

“And a working team will be formed for scrutinising the legislation in the new term. I hope the scrutiny will go fast and the bill will soon be implemented.”

On Thursday, lawmakers approved a 50 cent tax on bags handed out in stores.

Mr Yau said that at this stage it would be hard to estimate how many plastic bags would be saved every year as a result of the tax.

However, he said he hoped that through legislation it could help the public and business community gradually change their habits on the use of plastic bags.

US Experts Back Down On Climate Change Proposal

Watchdog bows to Bush pressure

Associated Press in Washington – Updated on Jul 13, 2008

The administration of US President George W. Bush, dismissing the recommendations of its experts, has rejected regulating the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, saying it would cripple the US economy.

In a 588-page notice, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made no finding on whether global warming posed a threat to people’s health or welfare, reversing an earlier conclusion at the insistence of the White House.

The White House on Thursday rejected the EPA’s suggestion three weeks earlier that the 1970 Clean Air Act could be effective for addressing climate change. The EPA said on Friday that the law was ill-suited for dealing with global warming.

“If our nation is truly serious about regulating greenhouse gases, the Clean Air Act is the wrong tool for the job,” EPA administrator Stephen Johnson said. “It is really at the feet of Congress.”

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Mr Bush was committed to further reductions, but that there was a “right way and a wrong way to deal with climate change”.

The wrong way was “to sharply increase gasoline prices, home heating bills and the cost of energy for American businesses”, she said. “The right way, as the president has proposed, is to invest in new technologies.”

At the just-concluded Group of Eight summit in Japan, Mr Bush and other world leaders called for a voluntary 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases worldwide by 2050, but offered no specifics on how to reach that goal. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the government had the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant, but Mr Bush has opposed doing that.

Congress has not found the will to do much about the problem, either. Supporters of regulating greenhouse gases managed to get only 48 votes in the 100-member Senate last month. The House of Representatives has held several hearings on the problem but no votes on any bill addressing it. Both major presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have endorsed variations of the approach rejected by the Senate.

In its document, the EPA laid out a buffet of options on how to reduce greenhouse gases from cars, power plants and factories. On Friday Mr Johnson called the proposals drafted by his staff “putting a square peg into a round hole” and said moving forward would be irresponsible.

“One point is clear: the potential regulation of greenhouse gases under any portion of the Clean Air Act could result in unprecedented expansion of EPA authority that would have a profound effect on virtually every sector of the economy and touch every household in the land,” Mr Johnson wrote.

Attorneys general from several states called the administration’s findings inadequate.

“The time has long passed for open-ended pondering – what we need now is action,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley of Massachusetts, which initiated the Supreme Court case.

The EPA said it had encountered resistance from the agriculture, commerce, energy and transport departments, as well as the White House, which made it “impossible” to respond in a timely fashion to the Supreme Court decision.

Friday’s action caps months of often tense negotiations between EPA scientists and the White House over how to address global warming. They ended with the White House citing “extraordinary circumstances” and refusing to review the draft forwarded last month by EPA scientists.

The latest document is much more cautious than a determination made in December by the agency, which found greenhouse gases endangered public welfare. It also appears to counteract the findings of drafts released in May and last month, which found the Clean Air Act could be an effective tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

Who’ll Call The Shots On Smog?

It’s still not clear who’ll call the shots on smog

26 days to go

Peter Simpson – Updated on Jul 13, 2008 – SCMP

There’s the mouthwatering prospect of many an Olympic showdown in 26 days, and two burning questions remain unanswered.

The first: will China beat the US in the medal count? No one can be sure but the smart money is on the home side.

The second is more opaque, more difficult to determine, yet its outcome might well determine the reputations of several key Olympic personalities that have emerged in this seven-year saga.

After contradictory comments this week by senior International Olympic Committee members, there is the prospect of a clash of opinions among Games chiefs gathered around the various monitoring systems that will measure air safety levels.

Confusion has long reigned over just how Beijing Environment Protection Bureau (BEPB) officials have been measuring the capital’s air.

To what standards, how and where they are taken, and what particular pollutants were being measured, has left many scratching their heads and others suspecting cover-ups and bogus figures.

From all the negatives that Games organiser Bocog has had to endure and overcome, it is its oldest bugbear – smog – that now threatens to tarnish the much-deserved universal praise for preparing what is expected to be one of the greatest Olympics.

It has been well documented that international experts are satisfied that outside events under one hour pose no long-term health risk to athletes. However, events that last more than an hour can lead to long-term lung and other respiratory damage.

But who will call the shots should the air prove too dangerous for endurance sports such as the marathons, race walking and road cycle races?

The answer, until this week, was perhaps one of the clearest, tangible elements to be seen through the smog that plagues the Olympic capital and which provided an unwelcome backdrop to the IOC’s final inspection.

IOC president Jacques Rogge has stated on several occasions – reiterated firmly, in fact – he will order the postponement of endurance events if the air quality is poor.

The IOC’s chief spokeswoman, Giselle Davies, underscored Rogge’s unquestionable authority this week.

“There is no change in that we [the IOC] shall determine whether endurance events will be postponed,” she said.

“There is a process in place during Games time to reschedule and we will activate it. We will be getting information [on the air quality] from the authorities on a daily basis, as well as their predictions for the next day,” she said.

“BEPB will share their data with us, Bocog and the international sports federations. And it will then be decided if the mechanism for rescheduling an event will be used.

“We have to work on the basis of trust and work with the data provided by the host nation.”

It’s expected every national team, as well as the international sports federations, will bring their own air-quality monitors.

The IOC will also dispatch a medical-cum-air testing taskforce of its own, headed by the chairman of the IOC medical commission, Arne Ljungqvist, to also inspect the air.

The reason for so many beeping monitors? BEPB has come in for the some stick over the past year, notably over its PM10 metre readings of dust and vehicle emission particles.

PM10, according to BEPB, rarely if ever strays into the danger zone but hovers around the upper limit of acceptable air quality deemed safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In January, respected environmental consultant Steven Andrews claimed BEPB officials had been fudging the city’s air-quality data by eliminating readings from some monitoring stations in heavily-congested areas. BEPB has repeatedly denied this.

However, tit-for-tat claims and denials would both be rendered redundant by the IOC, which has the ultimate responsibility to protect the athletes who compete under the organisation’s five rings. If a dispute arose on the day of the women’s marathon, say, with BEPB and Bocog officials arguing the air was safe and independent air testers arguing otherwise, Rogge would intervene and order a postponement.

He would do so no matter the humiliation felt by the hosts who have worked so hard and for so long to get the party perfect, only to see it tainted by the one element it believed it could control.

But doubt as to who calls the shots was cast this week by another senior IOC member.

Press commission chairman Kevan Gosper stressed that any rescheduling would be made only after consultations with Bocog and would “be a joint decision”.

“We will not overrule Bocog [on pollution concerns],” he said firmly.

“Every decision during the Games, as over the past seven years of preparation, will be done with close consultation with Bocog, as it is at every Games. Any postponement will be a joint decision. We have full confidence in the air quality data provided.”

This given, and with the stakes so high for both the IOC and Bocog to deliver on their promises, one would gladly pay more for a disguise as a fly on the wall at any potential stand-off over between what is safe air and what is not, than for an opening ceremony ticket on eBay.

Moreover, the reputations and risk assessment capabilities of many will be determined by a Games free of pollution.

For Rogge, et al, being seen to kowtow to a host city and accept data that might be skewed to allow an endurance event to go ahead, could cause many to suggest the Olympic family has given in to an overbearing sibling.

Like the shiny new buildings that dot Olympic Beijing’s skyline, the answer to just who will call the shots on air-quality judgment day is far from clear.