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September 19th, 2008:

Hong Kong Air Pollution

Urban Jungle

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Dr Eric – Updated on Sep 19, 2008 – SCMP

This week: Air pollution

Making my way to work today reminded me why I moved to Sai Kung recently. When approaching Causeway Bay along the Island Eastern Corridor, I am usually greeted by the impressive panorama of the skyline from Causeway Bay stretching out to distant Sheung Wan, the break of water of Victoria Harbour, then the new skyline of Tsim Sha Tsui stretching back to Whampoa. The view can be breathtaking when you can see it, but today I couldn’t see any of it through the heavy haze of air pollution. It was absolutely atrocious; the air was thick with a brown-yellow particulate matter and my airway allergy was acting up and I was coughing as I choked on the air. I couldn’t believe that I was voluntarily going into the heart of the haze to breathe in that air – I wanted to turn around and run away. It was sort of scary really.

It is undoubtedly true that the horrible air today as reported by the Hong Kong Observatory was partly due to light winds in the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong and the low-pressure system over Taiwan trapped the pollution in Hong Kong. And because of the sunny weather and heat, there are photochemical reactions between pollutants that form ozone, which is a strongly oxidising agent that will readily react with other chemicals such as nitrogen oxide from vehicle admissions to form the smog.

The report from the Hong Kong Observatory highlights several issues. The prevalent calm weather has caused this smog to stay in Hong Kong, which implies this amount of air pollution exists every single day of the year but today nature hasn’t had the grace to blow it elsewhere. I find the situation totally unacceptable. It is shocking to see and breathe what we Hongkongers have created and it is equally shocking to know that we accept this amount of pollution normally because it gets blown elsewhere, where it is someone else’s problem. There is a saying that goes, “You reap what you sow”, and it will be future generations that will suffer as a result of the air pollution we are creating.

The government on numerous occasions in the past has laid the blame for much of Hong Kong’s air pollution squarely on the shoulders of our Shenzhen and Pearl River Delta neighbours, but there is much evidence to show that most of the air pollution over Hong Kong is created right here. It has been shown that 50 per cent of the nitrogen oxides and particulate matter in the air is caused by electricity generation in Hong Kong. The Castle Peak power plant operated by CLP Power has been cited as the world’s third most polluting power plant, an accusation that the power plant denies. Hong Kong roads rate as among the world’s most polluting. Much of the blame lies with the thriving goods transport sector between the busy harbour terminal and neighbouring Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta.

I was shocked at the recent government tax cuts for the slightly less polluting Euro V diesel fuel during the recent oil price rises, when only 23 per cent of the vehicle fleet is made up of diesel trucks and they create more than 80 per cent of the pollution. This tells us that the groups that represent these diesel users have unusual amounts of influence over the government or the government made a knee-jerk reaction based on inadequate or poorly evaluated data.

The Environmental Protection Department, which was set up to help monitor and solve air pollution problems, set its own air quality objectives for seven air pollutants in 1987. These objectives haven’t been reviewed once since their establishment and even though the street-level pollution index exceeds their own air quality objectives consistently, nothing has been done.

As a resident of this otherwise great city I urge the public to take a more active interest in improving air quality. The effects of air pollution are not just irritation to the airways when the pollution is particularly bad. There are horrible long-term side effects, such as chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver and kidneys.

We need to encourage the government to support green industries that are actively looking for a way to decrease pollution. We should also support the scientific community in its search for alternative energy sources and ways to clean up air pollutants. The government should be more active in policing the dialogue between its own departments and that of the mainland in decreasing air pollution. This dialogue exists but its agenda has been delayed time and time again. We citizens need to stop being hypocrites and accept the loss in productivity and income that is sometimes needed to decrease the amount of destruction we are causing to the environment.

Reinventing The Wheel

Updated on Sep 19, 2008 – SCMP

The revolution towards an environmentally friendly automotive industry has left the back roads and taken to the streets. General Motors’ unveiling this week of the production version of its electric and petrol-powered Chevrolet Volt marks that point. But this does not mean that the era of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing vehicles is over. Government will and presence is now necessary to ensure that clean-car technology takes hold and predominates.

We have, after all, been at this point before. As innovative as electric and hybrid cars may seem, they were around when the industry was in its infancy at the turn of the last century. Henry Ford’s decision, in 1908, to opt for petrol to fuel his mass-produced Model T (it could even run on biofuels) steered the course. Ford was swayed by an oil-discovery boom that saw the advent of a cheap, easily-available fuel. His assembly lines produced affordable vehicles that, within a decade, had driven out the more expensive steam and battery-powered competition.

New technologies have been flirted with and abandoned, nuclear and solar among them. US carmaker Baker Motor Vehicle Company produced thousands of electric cars between 1899 and 1915, despite their low speeds. Engineer Ferdinand Porsche created the first battery-and-petrol hybrid in 1901 with his Mixte, which was too expensive to produce commercially because it needed 2 tonnes of batteries to operate the engines on each of its wheels. Battery technology breakthroughs allowed Toyota to take up the hybrid baton again with its Prius in Japan, in 1997.

As pioneering as the Prius has been, the fact that it switches to petrol when speeds of about 25km/h are reached make it rife for a successor. The Volt reverses that, with petrol only used when its batteries run low. There are still difficulties with development, though, and whether the anticipated launch date of late 2010 can be met remains to be seen. But, with the realisation that, for the sake of the environment, vehicles need to be non-polluting and that fossil fuels will one day run out, it is clear that hybrids are only a bridging technology. The Renault-Nissan Alliance is at the forefront of this thinking, indicating that it wants all-electric cars to be ready for mass production by 2010.

Automotive consultants and historians I contacted were in no doubt that electricity was the future fuel. But, for all the innovations and apparent direction of the industry, we should heed the past. University of Dayton science and technology historian John Heitmann pointed out that the industry is at the same crossroads it found itself in the late 1960s.

Then, innovations saw the creation of electric-powered prototypes like Ford’s Commuta. The three-wheeled car unveiled in 1967 – two generations ahead of GM’s move this week – was capable of speeds of 40km/h, with a range of 60km between charges. Unlike the Volt, it was completely non-polluting.

Dr Heitmann laments that the car industry dragged its heels on the innovation, determining that shaking up its manufacturing and way of thinking was not in its interests. Had the developments been built upon, there is no telling where the world would be today. Without doubt, though, there would be far less dependency on Middle East oil, and urban pollution levels would be considerably lower. In consequence, the past decade has been spent reinventing the wheel.

Americans have the world’s biggest auto market and love big vehicles – but not high petrol prices. The cost of oil has dropped by about a third from its June high and the US$4 per gallon threshold that turned the US market to smaller cars and hybrids is being forgotten. GM says it is committed to the Volt, but there are few parts of the US where the infrastructure for electric cars is in place.

Oil is a finite resource, no matter what the price. Fossil-fuel-burning vehicles are the biggest source of urban pollution. Circumstances have driven carmakers to where we have been before but, this time, there can be no turning back. Governments have to ensure, through incentives for innovators and consumers, and penalties for polluters, that the progress continues.

Peter Kammerer is the Post’s foreign editor.