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January, 2009:

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. cloh@civic-exchange.org

Exemption From Idling Ban For Red Minibuses Too Broad

Exemption from idling ban for red minibuses too broad, greens say

Peter So – Updated on Jan 15, 2009 – SCMP

Green activists say proposed exemptions for red minibuses parked with idling engines are too broad.

A government source said earlier that any two red minibuses plying the same route would be exempted from a proposed ban on idling engines if there were passengers in the first vehicle waiting at a stop.

Clean Air Action Group convenor Yolanda Ng Yuen-ting said that that would not help improve air quality in busy districts.

She said a stop for red minibuses usually had buses plying many routes and the vehicles parked separately.

“The exemption virtually allows all the vehicles to park without shutting off their engines,” Ms Ng said.

She feared the exemption would make a ban difficult to enforce.

Phil Heung Fu-lap, vice-chairman of Clean The Air, called for a ban without any exemptions.

Meanwhile, Annelise Connell, honorary secretary of Mini Spotters, said many red minibuses had been waiting for passengers on the street, outside minibus stops, but police seldom took action against them.

She said she had doubts that the police had enough manpower to enforce the ban on idling engines if the law was passed.

Ms Ng said a hotline allowing people to report cases of illegal parking and idling engines should be established.

The Ban On Idling Engines

Tim Hamlett’s Hong Kong
A veteran journalist and Baptist University academic, Tim looks at the issues facing the city.

E-mail him at hamlett@hkbu.edu.hk

Updated on Jan 14, 2009 – SCMP

You have to sympathise with the officials grappling with the finer points of the ban on idling engines. Engines running in stationary vehicles are widely regarded as a nuisance and health hazard, a view for which there is ample scientific authority. On the other hand a ban on idling engines is bound to be opposed by sundry transport interests, many of which have demonstrated in recent years the power and the willingness to bring parts of the city to a halt.

Clearly you can’t please all the people all the time. Looking at the list of exemptions – for queuing minibuses, queuing taxis, buses and coaches carrying one or more passengers, people with turbo-charged diesel engines, which apparently need to calm down for three minutes before you switch them off – it would be easy to characterise this as a public education campaign masquerading as legislation.

My experience of minibuses is that the drivers never switch them off, even when they are stopped at a filling station with a hose in the fuel orifice. I have always supposed this to be due to fear that the engine, if allowed to stop, would refuse to come back to life. I suspect drivers so willing to risk roasting themselves and their passengers are unlikely to be much influenced by the prospect of a small fine.

It will be interesting to see what creative use is made of the exemption for a bus, coach etc with one or more passengers on board. Will we see the appearance of professional passengers, who for a small fee will sit in a coach so it meets the legal requirements to allow it to run its air con? Or if that sounds too pricey for the marginal end of the industry, is there a possible market for inflatable passengers, which can be deflated and stowed away if a real passenger needs the seat, and swiftly reinflated with a foot pump at the end of each trip? Perhaps the owners of buses and coaches will turn out to be principled people who would not dream of stooping to such tricks to evade the clear intention of the law. But I am not, as it were, holding my breath.

Anyway, at the risk of adding further to the burdens of the transport officials wrestling with this matter, I have to draw their attention to a problem: my car. It’s one of those nifty Japanese jobs with an electric motor and some added gadgetry – a hybrid. It is classified by the Californian authorities as a vehicle with zero emissions. This is presumably the case when the engine is idling as well as when it is doing something more strenuous, so as far as the intention of the law is concerned, there is no problem. With the letter of the law the situation is more tricky.

Generally speaking, at speeds below 12km/h cars of my kind switch off the petrol engine and run from the big battery concealed in the back seat. When you stop, the engine is already off – and the air con is still on, which is nice. However, this arrangement involves some drain on the battery. So at some point without intervention on the part of the driver, the car will switch on the engine to charge the battery.

This is going to present a problem to the person coyly referred to in government documents as the “enforcing agent”, who I presume will be a police officer. At least he’d better be if he is going to hang around minibus stands interfering with the tranquillity of drivers; those guys have some rough friends. When my car stops I am presumably not required by law to turn off the engine. It is off already. If it starts up, it was not started by me. Is the traffic officer supposed to arrest the on-board computer? But if the computer can be arrested separately, then I can presumably count as a passenger.

Perhaps this is a more imaginary problem than a real one. My car, even with the engine running, is silent enough to be a serious hazard for unwary pedestrians in car parks. I understand you can now buy a noise-making kit for it, which sits under the bonnet and projects spurious engine noises forward to warn people of its approach. So I do not expect the activities of my engine to attract much attention.

Still, no doubt some happy “enforcement agent” will find a fruitful hunting ground among the fleets of private cars lurking in the lower Mid-Levels around 4.30pm, waiting for the summons to take the boss home. This is not a very satisfactory prospect because the contribution to air pollution from static cars is actually quite small. Meanwhile, I suspect, large diesel engines will continue to find that for the sake of their restless turbo-chargers or imaginary passengers, they need to continue to belch out muck in large quantities. You can’t, as we were saying before, please all the people all the time. When this kind of dilemma crops up, somehow it is the people who like clean air who end up with the dirty end of the stick, as it were. Evidence for this generalisation? Stick your head out the window and sniff.

Will Guangdong Meet 2010 Emission Reduction Targets?

Lawmakers sceptical that HK, Guangdong will meet 2010 emission reduction targets

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP – Updated on Jan 14, 2009

Lawmakers remain worried that Hong Kong and Guangdong will not meet their 2010 targets for emission reductions, despite figures showing they are making progress.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department says emissions of three of the four pollutants are on track to meet the targets – reductions from 1997 levels of between 20 and 55 per cent. The odd one out is sulfur dioxide. Emissions in 2007 were 3 per cent above their 1997 level.

“I am very pessimistic about whether we will be able to meet the targets as we have just two to three years left,” said Democrat legislator Lee Wing-tat at a meeting of the Legislative Council’s subcommittee on improving air quality yesterday. Other legislators said officials had not taken air pollution seriously.

Liberal Miriam Lau Kin-yee, who represents the transport sector, said the lawmakers should take the lead in fighting air pollution by minimising car use when commuting to the Legislative Council in Central.

Undersecretary for the Environment Kitty Poon Kit said the government was confident the city could meet the targets once power plants, the largest emitters of sulfur dioxide, finished desulfurisation in the next few months. Dr Poon said the government would consult the public about a review of air quality standards by the middle of the year.

Critics say the city’s 22-year-old air quality objectives do not safeguard public health. The government intends to adopt interim targets set by the World Health Organisation.

Meanwhile, a coalition of road transport operators has called on the government to withdraw its proposal to ban idling vehicle engines, saying it would hurt their business and would not improve air quality.

However, the number of hours in which street-level pollution exceeded danger levels in three of the city’s most crowded areas rose by an average of 14 per cent last year. In Causeway Bay, the increase was more than 40 per cent.

The coalition, comprising at least six taxi groups and transport unions, is circulating a petition and does not rule out stronger protests.

Coalition spokesman Chung Kin-wah said: “There is no room for negotiation.”

Mr Chung said the ban would lead to operating difficulties for commercial vehicles and enforcement problems and endanger drivers and passengers.

Govt Optimistic Over Pollution Targets

RTHK – 13-01-2009

The government says Hong Kong is on track to meet targets set for reducing emissions by next year. It said three out of four pollutants – including nitrogen oxide – had already been cut to near these levels. Sulphur dioxide emissions remain high, but the Deputy Director of Environmental Protection, Carlson Chan, told legislators that new systems being installed by the power companies could more than halve such pollution. However, the chairwoman of Legco’s sub-committee on air quality, Audrey Eu, said progress would depend to a great extent on what action is taken on the mainland.

Hong Kong’s Outdated Building Codes

A very tall order

Hong Kong needs a comprehensive review of its outdated building codes, which stifle the kind of creative architecture seen elsewhere, including on the mainland

Olga Wong – SCMP – Updated on Jan 12, 2009

The heated debate about huge developments undermining the city’s air quality seems to have cooled down with the government’s recent efforts to reduce the density of a few controversial developments. The Development Bureau’s proposal to limit building heights and promote more-sustainable designs last month further raised public expectations for a better living environment.

While things seem on the right track, the city’s veteran architects still have worries and reservations, given the constraints they face in designing innovative and sustainable buildings in Hong Kong. They have called for an overhaul of building regulations and a master plan for the city.

Architects have dubbed Hong Kong’s residential buildings “birthday cakes” because of their look – a cluster of high-rises sitting atop a huge podium structure, resembling a birthday cake with candles on top. They say that Hong Kong, which claims to be a “world city”, has surprisingly few innovative designs.

“A pyramid-shaped building or buildings of any irregular shape could never appear in Hong Kong if the building regulations remain unchanged,” said architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee, whose “Door” design was picked for the new government headquarters at Tamar.

He was referring to a pyramid-shaped building proposed for an office and hotel development in Paris. The building, named Le Project Triangle and to be completed in 2014, caught the eyes of the world not only for its stunning structure but also its green features.

It was designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the firm that designed the National “Birds Nest” Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. They said the landmark will cast no shadows on adjacent buildings, while wind and solar power will be used to enhance energy efficiency.

Here in Hong Kong, rigid building laws limit creativity. “Architects have to play by the rules,” Mr Yim said. One constraint, he said, is the rule on site coverage – how much area a building can cover on the development site.

For example, the base of all buildings has to be larger than the structure’s upper part – to a specific proportion. Yet, buildings on the mainland, and in other countries, can be designed with a smaller base, thus allowing for overhangs.

Mr Yim said the rule could stop developers “stealing” the ground space underneath the overhangs for commercial use. “This is perhaps a reason. I am not really sure about the rationale behind such an inflexible rule,” he said.

“In some cases, the law allows 100 per cent site coverage for the bottom part of a building. Under such circumstances, we [architects] might commit the ultimate sin of not maximising the floor area if we do not build a large podium.”

When not tied down by inflexible building laws, Hong Kong architects can create innovative designs – and have done so elsewhere, including on the mainland. One example is the 17 Miles East Coast complex, in east Shenzhen. The apartments form a cascading structure to make the development more compatible with the hilly landscape.

Another rule in Hong Kong that leads to many dull, similar buildings is the exemption for green designs – such as balconies that can provide shade – from floor-area calculations. The rule was supposed to be an incentive for developers to incorporate more environmental features. Since it took effect in 2001, residential blocks with standard balconies have become common. The balconies are almost all the same size and style because, first, they cannot be enclosed, and second, their maximum permissible floor area is 4 per cent of the flat’s size, or 5 square metres, whichever is less.

“Bay windows are also confined to a height not exceeding 1.5 metres. This is to ensure the space will not become part of the living area,” said Ronald Lu Yuen-cheung, the immediate past president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects.

Exemptions are also granted to car parks of residential developments within a train station’s catchment area, to encourage drivers to park and take trains. The problem is that no one can really tell whether a building with these features is really environmentally friendly.

And without a limit on the maximum gross floor area of each development site, the impact of adding green features and car parks can lead to even larger developments, which block views and air flows. In some cases, according to the Development Bureau, total floor areas have risen by between 50 per cent and 110 per cent as a result of the car park exemption.

The Development Bureau – in an apparent catching up with changing social aspirations – announced late last year significant reductions in the scale of several controversial projects, including the “Mega Tower” in Wan Chai, the Staunton Street redevelopment project in Sheung Wan and two residential developments to be built at Nam Cheong and Yuen Long MTR stations.

The bureau has also imposed height restrictions on new developments in each district and promised to review the green-features exemption policy, with proposals to cap the exemption at 20 per cent to 35 per cent of the total gross floor area, excluding “bonus areas” and car parks.

Developers might also have to comply with environmental requirements to ensure the development as a whole contributes to improving the neighbourhood, for example, by setting back the development to widen pedestrian areas, allowing adequate gaps between buildings to prevent the “wall effect” and providing green areas covering 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the development. The public will be consulted in the next few months.

“We seem to be heading in the right direction. But we are just focusing on bits and pieces. We need a framework, a master plan, to lead the way,” Mr Yim said.

The average living space per person in Hong Kong is just 12 square metres, he said, compared with a Shenzhen resident’s 19.7 square metres. “We owe it to the community to improve their living standards and give the average person a slightly larger apartment, meaning the building bulk will need to grow,” he said, “So, building tall is actually a solution to our problems. It enables our city to remain compact and dense, and to function.”

Tall buildings actually allow more open ground space. But recent action by the Planning Department to strictly limit building height will not help. “Tall buildings, without intruding into ridge lines, should be tolerable because they moderate the skyline,” said Mr Yim. Under government proposals, new developments in commercial areas of East Tsim Sha Tsui should not exceed 60 metres in height, while residential buildings and cultural facilities in the West Kowloon arts hub are limited to 50 metres and 70 metres, respectively, much lower than the International Commerce Centre and luxurious residential high-rises behind the hub.

Hong Kong will need an updated master plan – with a comprehensive review of building regulations – to achieve a proper balance in population density and quality living.

Anna Kwong Sum-yee, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, said a master plan would give direction in urban design and solve conflicting views commonly seen among the buildings, planning and lands departments. “Sometimes, an architect has to submit three different plans for a project just because these three departments have different interpretations on building-height measurements,” she said. “There are constant reviews of the regulations but they are not fundamental changes.”

The building regulations were adopted from Britain in 1956, and were mainly used to improve public health and safety in tenement districts. Lawmaker and former professor of architecture Patrick Lau Sau-shing said about 300 amendments have been made to the Buildings Ordinance over the past 50 years. “The regulations used to serve residential developments of seven storeys high. What we have now are more than 40 storeys. How can an archaic ordinance allow quality designs?” Dr Lau said. “It definitely needs a thorough review.”

The review should consider relaxing the site-coverage restriction to allow more innovative designs, Mr Yim said, adding that only features that improve the environment should be exempt from floor-area calculation. On the mainland, only underground car parks are exempt. Governments in Guangzhou and Australia exempt half a balcony’s size to allow more flexible and diverse designs, instead of limiting the size of an exempted balcony. “Balconies lower a flat’s temperature by shading it from sunlight. Perhaps we should consider exempting those facing west only?” Mr Yim said.

Raymond Chan Yuk-ming, chairman of the public and social affairs committee of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors, suggested varying the exempted balcony’s size with the flat’s size.

“The law is unclear on whether a flat can have a larger balcony or two balconies. Few developers are willing to test it out,” he said.

Unlike overseas, where land premiums account for about 20 per cent of the total construction cost, the situation in Hong Kong is different. “Here, gross floor area is public money,” Mr Lu said.

Recently, British philosopher Alain de Botton and author of The Architecture of Happiness predicted a rethink of the definition of wealth, because of the economic crisis. In a commentary for the news magazine Monocle, he said people would now question whether buildings should ever have been about making money. “Wise minds will stress that the quality of our houses, streets and cities is ultimately part of the mental health industry – and should not be seen as commodities without public responsibility,” he said.

Anger Grows Over Inaction On Air Pollution

Paggie Leung, SCMP – Updated on Jan 11, 2009

Public dissatisfaction with government and private sector efforts to ease air pollution has soared, a poll has shown, with nearly eight out of 10 residents unhappy with the situation.

The “Hong Kong’s Silent Epidemic” study was conducted by Baptist University’s Hong Kong transition project director Michael DeGolyer on behalf of Civic Exchange.

The poll surveyed 1,020 residents between September and October.

It found that most respondents – 77 per cent – were dissatisfied with efforts by top government officials to improve air quality, 22 percentage points higher than in a similar survey in 2001. Only 16 per cent said they were content with the status quo.

About two-thirds were disappointed with government attempts to fight air pollution, up 19 percentage points from 48 per cent in 2001. “The report demonstrates that the public is increasingly aware and concerned about air pollution, but feels its concerns are not being heard or addressed,” the study said.

Nearly seven in 10 interviewees were dissatisfied with the business sector’s efforts to deal with pollution, compared to about five in 10 in 2001.

Seventy-four per cent of those surveyed said they had complained to someone about air pollution.

Most cited the effects on their own or their family’s health.

Most people who did not complain believed “air pollution affects them but they don’t believe complaining would do any good and about half don’t know who to complain to”, the report said.

Part of the study was released on Monday. It found that one in five residents were considering leaving the city to escape pollution, while one in 10 were seriously considering such a move or had plans to go.

A government spokesman said it had been implementing strong measures to control emissions at source, especially from roads and power stations. There were also joint plans with Guangdong to reduce smog.

The government said it was reviewing air quality objectives, including guidelines published by the World Health Organisation.

“The review will propose new objectives and a long-term air quality management strategy,” he added.

Idling Engine Ban’s Early Implementation Urged

January 10, 2009 – Transport – News.gov.hk

Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau hopes revised proposals on banning idling vehicles with running engines can be legislated and implemented as early as possible.

Speaking on two radio programmes today, Mr Yau said the revisions, such as allowing different exemptions for taxis, minibuses and coaches, are reasonable.

He noted the trade’s requests and operational needs have been taken into account, adding public education will be stepped up.

While admitting the current air pollution index is outdated, Mr Yau said a consultancy review is nearly completed and the Government plans to put forward a package of options in 12 months to consult the public on the new benchmark Hong Kong should adopt.

He said people should consider the pace, the measures and the price they are ready to pay, noting the sulphur dioxide emission by local power plants must be cut by 95% if Hong Kong is to meet the World Health Organisation’s highest criterion.

To have an earth-shaking change to the power-generation mode in a day is impossible, Mr Yau said, so a pragmatic step-by-step approach should be studied.

He felt encouraged by the National Development & Reform Commission’s recent release of the Framework for Development & Reform Planning for the Pearl River Delta Region.

The framework suggested more co-operation on environmental protection between Hong Kong and the PRD region, and the forming of a regional quality green living area.

Board Backs Smaller Developments

Olga Wong, SCMP – 10 January 2009

A meeting of the Town Planning Board yesterday endorsed the Planning Department’s action to reduce the bulkiness of residential developments proposed on the former North Point Estate site. But the meeting, which discussed the planning brief prepared by the department, urged the Transport Department to reduce the size of the public transport terminal to reduce air and noise pollution at street level.

Birth Defects Caused By Environmental Pollution

Stephen Chen, SCMP – Updated on Jan 09, 2009

One-tenth of all birth defects in Jiangsu, one of the mainland’s richest provinces, are caused by environmental pollution, and half of the remaining cases are at least partly related to the environment, according to a five-year medical study in 13 cities.

From 2001 to 2006, the number of birth-defect cases on the mainland rose by 50 per cent to 1.2 million, but there has been no large-sample study to explain why it happened. The biggest data pool on the issue was amassed by the Jiangsu Birth Defects Intervention Programme, which tracked more than 26,000 pregnant women from 2001 to 2005.

The team, led by Hu Yali of Nanjing University, will receive the Chinese Medical Science and Technology Award in Beijing today for its findings, the Chinese Medical Association confirmed yesterday.

Researchers found the most prevalent defect was congenital heart disease. The disease, closely related to air pollution, is often fatal and difficult to detect. The situation is particularly severe in some hospitals lacking proper equipment and trained staff.

Cleft lip was the second-most-common condition and also related to air pollution. Unlike heart disease, the defect can be detected by ultrasound and is not fatal, but many parents chose to abort fetuses with the condition, fearing that it might lead to some other, more severe defects.

The third most frequently reported disease was congenital hydrocephalus, or excessive fluid in infants’ brains, which, according to some overseas studies, is sometimes a result of vehicle exhaust emissions.

Birth defects have become the single biggest killer of mainland infants,” Dr Hu was quoted by the Nanjing Morning Post as saying.

Jiangsu’s defect rate, about 1 per cent, is about one-sixth of the national average. In poorer provinces, or areas with heavy industry, the figure is much higher. But mainland studies about the relationship between the environment and birth defects have been limited.

A 2007 study carried out in Taiyuan , capital of coal-rich Shanxi , showed that the abundance of small particles in the air, a major contributing factor to the mainland’s air pollution, was a significant reason for miscarriage, birth defects and neonatal deaths.

A study by the Shenzhen Maternal and Child Health Institute last year found that the city’s birth-defect rate was higher than the national average, indicating that birth defects did not necessarily go down as income increased. Urban dwellers typically make more money than people outside cities.

Health education was an effective way of countering the problem, the Jiangsu study found. The children of workers, farmers, poorly educated people and low-income groups were the most at risk of birth defects, the study said.

A programme involving more than 3,000 families in the province showed that even simple education about precautionary measures could dramatically increase would-be parents’ awareness of the dangers, helping doctors make correct diagnoses and take preventive measures.

The mainland was in desperate need of key intervention technology and standardised practice, Dr Hu said. In one district of Wuxi , only 15 couples took premarital medical tests in 2005 after the government abandoned mandatory testing – a change that raised the risk of birth defects. Medical personnel also needed better education and training, the study said.