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January 15th, 2009:

Hong Kong’s Air Pollution Causes Some to Think Twice About Living There

By Kari Jensen, VOA – 15 January 2009

Air pollution in Hong Kong has gotten so bad that some businesses are losing staff and customers. A city watchdog group says the government is not doing enough to reduce pollution, much of which comes from mainland China.

Hong Kong’s skies were clear and blue when Alan Knight first arrived there in 1993. But, within 12 years, the city had become so polluted there were days when he could not see through the gray haze across Victoria Harbor.

Knight’s work requires travel. He is a journalist and professor. He also has a lung condition, which usually is dormant. But it flared, a few years back, when he returned to Hong Kong. He was hospitalized and received high dosages of antibiotics. Once he was back in Brisbane, Australia the condition resolved itself.

Knight says he is looking to move back to Asia, but not Hong Kong.

“I think the atmosphere in Hong Kong is really toxic,” he said. “I’d love to come back to Hong Kong. I love the city. I love the people. I love the place. But, quite frankly, I’m likely to live in Singapore.”

The city’s poor air quality is affecting both its residents’ health and its economy. A recent survey shows one in five Hong Kongers may leave the city, because of air pollution. Air pollution costs more than $283 million annually in health care costs and lost job prospects.

Michael DeGolyer is a professor in international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He conducted the air pollution survey for Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank.

He says about 30 percent of those who are seriously considering leaving because of bad air are mid- to high-level professionals.

DeGolyer says more than 97 percent of those surveyed were ethnic Chinese. He says air pollution is not just an expat concern.

“Everybody breathes air,” he said. “And, it’s become a concern to everybody now.”

In southern China, factories are closing down, in part because of tougher environmental standards. Still, Chinese factories in the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong are the city’s major source of pollution.

But half the time, Hong Kong’s pollution comes directly from its power plants, vehicular emissions and marine traffic.

In the city’s urban areas, tall buildings trap particulates, instead of allowing them to be dispersed by the wind. Residents live close to the roadways and are constantly exposed.

Local activists are looking to other major cities to see what they did to curtail pollution. DeGolyer says research in California shows money spent on air pollution abatement was more than recovered by reduced health care costs and improved worker productivity.

Civic Exchange is pushing Hong Kong to impose stricter air quality standards. It wants the environmental standards to also protect public health. It hosted a clean air conference recently, where international researchers, scientists, economists and academics discussed green measures.

Hong Kong’s present guidelines have not been updated for more than two decades. The city’s air quality, in terms of sulfur content, is much less stringent than World Health Organization guidelines set in 2006.

A Hong Kong legislature’s environmental affairs committee plans to review air quality guidelines and possibly adopt more stringent standards this year.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department has made efforts to curtail pollution. It has tightened vehicle and power plant emissions and introduced cleaner fuels.

Although sulfur dioxide emissions in the city have dropped back to almost 1997 levels, they are still well above the government’s emission-reduction targets. Air pollution worsened this past year.

Government detractors say, in terms of addressing air pollution, the legislature favors business, especially the transport lobby.

Businesses are quick to defend themselves. Al Hendricks works for a company that manufactures energy-saving equipment. He says industry is less resistant to change than government.

“There’s people here who just don’t want to make changes and are either afraid to or just don’t want to rock the boat for whatever reason,” he said.

Hendricks says the government needs to offer incentives if it wants businesses to enforce environmental standards.

As upper-level professionals leave Hong Kong for jobs in less-polluted cities, businesses may be forced to change without government prodding. The demand for top talent across Asia is high.

It is a delicate balance. By imposing stricter standards, Hong Kong may lose business to nearby Chinese ports and cities, which have looser standards. But, by not cleaning up its air, Hong Kong is already losing professionals and businesses.

The Hong Kong government is working with the government of southern Guangdong province to reduce regional emissions.

Guangdong has agreed to ban the construction of new coal-fired or oil-fired power plants.

Still, even if Hong Kong addresses its air pollution, it can not force Guangdong to take the same measures.

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.

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.