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March 14th, 2009:

HK Told To Aim Low On Clean-air Targets Officials Advise Adopting WHO’s Guidelines

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

Hong Kong has been advised to adopt the minimum targets of World Health Organisation air quality guidelines, officials said yesterday.

They were unveiling the outcome of the air quality objectives review conducted by its consultant since June 2007. The review aimed to update the standards unchanged since 1987, with reference to the WHO guidelines issued in 2006.

Compliance with the WHO guidelines could cut hospital admissions caused by air pollution and increase the average Hongkonger’s lifespan by around nine hours, they said.

But the officials failed to offer either a timetable for meeting the targets or a road map for going beyond that, saying issues about the pace and willingness to pay for clean air measures would be left to the public to decide in a consultation later this year.

According to the review findings, Hong Kong should adopt the least stringent of the WHO’s three sets of guidelines for sulfur dioxide and ozone but relatively tougher limits for respirable suspended particles.

The consultant also proposed introducing a limit for fine particles known as PM2.5, which were believed to be more detrimental to health than heavier particles.

A total of 19 first-phase measures, including increasing the use of natural gas, were identified as helping to meet the new objectives. There were another 17 measures for longer-term targets.

Among these early measures, the most cost-effective was bus route-rationalisation. However, the early retirement of old diesel vehicles delivered most benefits.

The officials estimated that electricity charges would rise by 20 per cent if half of the city’s power was generated using natural gas. They also estimated that bus fares would increase by 15 per cent if all old buses were phased out.

However, a green group described the estimates as “scare tactics”, saying it was being used by the government to justify adoption of the least stringent of the WHO’s three sets of standards.


“The only purpose of these figures is to scare the public. But it has failed to take into account the health cost of pollution,” said Edward Chan Yue-fai, campaigner for Greenpeace.

Full compliance with the new objectives could save 4,000 hospital admissions a year. The estimated minimum cost of implementing the measures was around HK$28.5 billion.

A senior environment official yesterday declined to give an estimated time frame for meeting the objectives. The official said the pace, priority and price of the measures would be clearer after collecting views from a public forum on the review next Friday, and they would become the core questions in the final public consultation to be launched in the summer.

“The targets are ambitious and there is a lot of work to achieve them. But we will definitely speed them up,” the official said.

The official also said that no country had adopted the most stringent targets and it was believed a “progressive” approach towards meeting the long-term goals was more preferable.

The officials also warned that power plants might be unable to renew their licences while new infrastructure projects would not be able to go ahead if some unachievable targets became the criteria for environmental impact assessment.

They said “more radical measures” were required in both Hong Kong and Guangdong if the targets were to go beyond the proposed air quality objectives.