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July, 2009:

Breathless in the city

Christine Loh, SCMP

There’s no avoiding the fact that roadside air pollution is so high it’s a major threat to our health

Can there really be any doubt that street-level pollution in Hong Kong comes almost wholly from the vehicles on our roads? It’s definitely not from across the border. But it is frighteningly high, and presents a major threat to public health. Roadside air monitoring stations showed that levels so far this year are much worse than they were in the same period in 2005.

The South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) reported on Wednesday that the stations in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok recorded the equivalent of 44 days – or 1,066 hours – of “very high” pollution levels, using the government’s outmoded Air Pollution Index (API).

To really understand the true costs of air pollution in Hong Kong, we should be looking at the Hedley Environmental Index. This monitors and publishes in real-time the economic costs of Hong Kong’s air pollution in terms of public health impacts and their monetary value.

What most people do not know is that even at “high” or “medium” API levels, the pollution is bad enough to affect our health. That’s because the API is based on a set of outdated air quality objectives. These have not been revised since 1987 – yet health science has advanced a lot since then and much more is now known about the impact pollution has on people. Clearly, then, these objectives cannot protect our health; air quality that meets them just isn’t good enough. Worse, not meeting these objectives presents an enormous health hazard.

Almost on a daily basis, roadside air pollution levels are “medium” to “high”, and quite regularly reach “very high”. We have just three roadside monitoring stations – in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok – so people naturally assume these must be the most polluted areas. This is not necessarily true; we just happen to measure pollution levels there. They were chosen because they are areas with a high density of population and traffic, yet there are other, just as busy, places where the pollution may be even worse. We don’t know, because we are not measuring the levels.

The bottom line is that pollution from vehicles poses a severe health threat to a very large number of citizens. Just how many people? Well, consider all the streets where the “canyon effect” traps pollution between buildings. Now think of all the people who live in low-rise, older buildings or on the lower floors of high-rises, as well as those who attend schools and clinics in some of the most densely populated areas of town. Then there are the people who work in such areas, particularly those in shops and cafes that open onto busy streets. And, let’s not forget drivers, street vendors, street cleaners, postmen and police officers on the beat. The number of people exposed to very high levels of roadside air pollution for a significant time every day must be enormous, perhaps in the millions.

The government’s response is that there have been improvements. Officials say some of the pollutant levels – those for sulphur dioxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides – have been reduced by 20 per cent since 1999. Hong Kong’s leading air-pollution and public-health experts continue to debate with officials about the significance of such claims. Even if we agree there have been “improvements”, they need to be seen in context.

It is undeniable that street-level pollution is extremely high. It was so in 1999; it remains so today. The so-called improvements are insignificant when it comes to our health.

If we use the World Health Organisation’s guidelines as the yardstick – rather than our own lax objectives – our roadside pollution is so bad that we have only one choice: clean it up, to protect public health, and do so quickly. It is the government’s duty.

People want to know what can be done. Here are a few measures to consider:

  • The government must adopt a new policy goal to improve air quality to the point where pollution no longer poses a significant health risk. All bureaus and departments must work together on this.
  • Our air quality objectives must be revised using the WHO standards, and implementation plans with timelines must accompany interim targets.
  • Officials should devise a scheme to switch diesel and petrol vehicles to natural gas and environmentally sustainable biofuels while using electric-powered transport where appropriate.
  • Highways and transport officials must not be allowed to dictate – as they do today – road designs without considering environmental and health factors.
  • Traffic flows need to be managed more efficiently, using information technology, and the number of vehicles on our roads must be reduced.
  • Finally, vehicle tax and licence fees should be set according to the amount of emissions produced.

A new mindset is needed, to put people before cars, and plan the city accordingly. The last thing Hong Kong should do is blame its roadside pollution on someone else.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chairwoman of the new Clean Air Network (CAN), and CEO of the non-profit think tank Civic Exchange. For the Hedley Environmental Index, see:

Area with lowest pollution readings deteriorating rapidly

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP

If you are looking for the place in Hong Kong where you can breathe most easily, Tai Po has the cleanest air – on the face of it.

It had the fewest hours of unhealthy air in the first half of the year – 1,188 hours, equivalent to 50 days.

But take a closer look and you will see a different picture.

A South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) analysis of Environmental Protection Department data from the 11 general air-quality monitoring stations citywide shows Tai Po was one of only three to record an increase in unhealthy air between the first half of 2005 and the first half of this year.

The increase in “high” and “very high” pollution readings in Tai Po between 2000 and 2008 was also the third-biggest across the city.

Sha Tin – like Tai Po, a New Territories new town – and Eastern district are the next cleanest, both recording fewer than 1,300 hours of unhealthy air in the first six months of the year.

Sham Shui Po and Kwun Tong were the most polluted built-up areas, with more than 1,500 hours of high or very high pollution in the first half of the year. These areas all experience heavy traffic on their roads.

Under the city’s 22-year-old air quality guidelines – which critics say are outdated – an air pollution index reading of 51 to 100 is classified as high and a reading above 100 as very high.

The government says persistent exposure to high levels of air pollution may have long-term effects and that when pollution is very high, people with heart or respiratory illnesses should reduce outdoor activity.

The general monitoring stations measure concentrations of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and respirable suspended particles.

The number of hours of high and very high air-pollution readings in Tai Po in a full year rose by 48 per cent, from 2,309 in 2000 to 3,422 in 2008. Only remote Tap Mun Island, with a 110 per cent increase, and the Sha Tin and Eastern districts, where the hours of unhealthy air rose 50 per cent, did worse.

The figures came as a big surprise to Yau Wing-kwong, a green activist and Tai Po district councillor.

“I have all along believed Tai Po is the greenest part of the city. I had no idea the air quality had worsened at such a pace,” he said.

“It is clearly very alarming and the district council should follow this up immediately. We should get involved with experts from universities to look into the problem.”

Mr Yau suspects a wave of property development, and reclamation of Tolo Harbour – the sea inlet on which Tai Po new towns sits – have played a role in changing the district’s microclimate.

Chan Chak-keung, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Science and Technology, said ozone pollution – caused by the reactions between volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides under strong sunlight – could be a big factor in Tai Po’s air pollution.

While the district had one of the lowest annual average concentrations of three of the four major pollutants last year, it had the second-highest average ozone pollution.

Only Tap Mun in Mirs Bay, into which Tolo Harbour runs, had worse ozone pollution. Government officials see the high levels there as a indicative of regional pollution levels, given the island’s proximity to the border.

Professor Chan said ozone pollution involved a complex process and its impacts in urban areas and the countryside were different. Ozone pollution tended to be less acute in urban areas since the gases could be “consumed” by nitrogen oxides emitted by motor vehicles, he said. But this offsetting process might be weaker in Tai Po.

“The district is relatively open and large, making dispersion of pollutants easier, while emissions from transport sources in the district are lower than in the urban areas.”

Frank Lee Shun-cheng of Polytechnic University said prevailing winds were a key factor in variation in air quality between districts.

No quick fixes for the problem of air quality

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP

The environment minister has admitted that roadside air pollution has not significantly improved over the years but says addressing it in isolation without tackling other sources will never deliver satisfactory air quality.

Edward Yau Tang-wah said air pollution had to be tackled on all fronts, and he called for community support when a review of air quality objectives was released for public consultation.

Mr Yau was responding to a report in the South China Morning Post yesterday which showed that the hours of worst roadside pollution had increased sixfold in five years while the quality of the air at higher levels had been steadily improving.

In an interview with the Post, the minister said a “multi-pronged approach” addressing both energy and transport at both regional and local levels was needed to deal with multiple sources of pollution.

“It is neither realistic to blame pollution from the mainland nor sufficient to work on local roadside pollution alone, as we are facing different sources of pollutants,” he said.

“It is never our stance that we can do nothing because of pollution from across the border. But we also don’t want a public perception that there is nothing more the mainland can do either,” he said.

The levels of the major background pollutants have fallen by between seven and 20 per cent since 2004. But Mr Yau admitted there had been little or no changes in overall roadside pollution levels, except for a 14 per cent reduction in suspended particles.

Mr Yau challenged the use of air pollution index figures to monitor air quality trends, which he said could be distorted by weather fluctuations. He said it was equally important to address power plant emissions.

Mr Yau said that in the upcoming review, the public would be confronted with questions over what carrots or sticks should be used in tackling pollution and to what extent people were prepared to pay for the changes.

Roadside air pollution up sixfold in 4 years – HK traffic not Guangdong factories to blame: scientists

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP


Air pollution at street level has soared in the past four years while improving at the city’s rooftops, calling into question assertions that Hong Kong’s chronic air-quality problems have a regional more than local source.

Roadside monitoring stations recorded more than six times as many periods of health-threatening pollution levels in the first half of this year than in the same period in 2005.

The stations, in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, registered 1,066 hours – the equivalent of more than 44 days – during which the air pollution index rose above the “very high” 100 level. (A 100 level prompts a health warning to those with heart and respiratory conditions.)

But above street level, the number of such hours recorded by general monitoring stations – which track sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and respirable suspended particles – fell by more than half, to 56, according to an analysis of Environmental Protection Department data by the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) .

There are 13 general monitoring stations across the city, located on building rooftops 11 to 25 metres above ground.

Scientists consulted by the Post say the improvement in air quality high above ground is due largely to Guangdong’s efforts to install sulphur scrubbers in power plants and the closure of many factories because of the recession.

The worsening street-level air is likely the product of cars and trucks on the city’s congested streets, the experts say.

“It is undeniably a local pollution problem at street level. All we need is a lot more and urgent measures to address vehicular pollution to protect public health,” said Alexis Lau Kai-hon, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Science and Technology.

But the Environmental Protection Department blamed regional air pollution for deteriorating street-level air quality. It said three key pollutants emitted by motor vehicles had in fact fallen, while regionally generated ozone was combining with other pollutants to form nitrogen dioxide by the road, pushing up the figures.

The department said changes in pollutant concentration readings were more reliable than the index in reflecting air quality trends.

It credited emission-control measures introduced in the past decade for bringing down levels of sulphur dioxide, suspended particles and nitrogen oxides by about 20 per cent between 1999 and last year.

But another roadside pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, rose 9 per cent in the first six months of this year and has remained at 1999 levels.

“The increase is mainly due to the rise in ambient background ozone concentration, which has aggravated the conversion of nitrogen oxides from motor vehicles to nitrogen dioxide,” a spokesman said.

Levels of ozone – the major component of smog – have risen 18 per cent in the first six months of the year and in recent years have been at higher levels than in 1999. Ozone can react with nitrogen oxides to form nitrogen dioxide.

But the government’s explanation was not accepted unquestionably by scientists.

“Without a high level of roadside nitrogen oxides from vehicles, the ozone would not have caused more serious secondary pollution of nitrogen dioxide,” Professor Lau said.

Chan Chak-keung, a professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering at HKUST, said controlling ozone-inducing volatile organic compounds coming from a wide spectrum of sources such as vehicles, factories and products like paints was never an easy task. There are nearly 636,000 cars, buses and trucks on the road in Hong Kong, up 5.7 per cent from the end of 2005.

Roadside pollution is also linked to poor dispersion of pollutants, caused by an urban design that favours high-rise towers even in congested streets.

Clean-air ideas abound but hard choices rare, green groups charge

Joyce Ng – SCMP

Green groups blame the city’s high roadside air pollution on the inadequacy of steps to curb bus and truck emissions and the failure to implement other long-discussed ideas.

Despite a series of attempts to tackle the problem over the past decade, high pollution levels have persisted.

The groups also pointed to reluctance among operators to join a voluntary subsidy scheme to get rid of old, polluting trucks and buses, and say it should be made compulsory.

Friends of the Earth environmental affairs manager Hahn Chu Hon-keung said: “The government is never short of proposals to improve air quality; lots of ideas have been thrown at it in the past decade. It’s just a question of determination.”

Efforts to tackle traffic pollution include the 2000 introduction of taxis burning liquefied petroleum gas instead of dirtier diesel.

More recent measures include tax concessions for those buying environment-friendly petrol cars in 2007, and the introduction of electric cars this year. By May, about 7,500 tax-reduction applications had been approved, about 11 per cent of all newly registered motor vehicles.

But Green Power chief executive Man Chi-sum said old diesel trucks, buses and minibuses were the types of vehicle that contributed most to dirty roadside air, and the most urgent task was to deal with them.

About a third of the franchised bus fleet on Hong Kong’s roads still does not meet Euro IV emission standards, the second-highest of five sets of standards that have been introduced progressively in Europe since 1992 and adopted internationally.

The last of the 1,800 pre-Euro and Euro I buses – which are more than twice as polluting as the newer models – will only be taken off the roads in 2015. Bus companies have said that replacing them immediately would be costly and require a fare rise.

“Whenever these buses start their engines, black smoke pours out,” Dr Man said. “It is time the government took bold action [such as] setting up a fund to subsidise bus companies in speeding up the process.”

A HK$3.2 billion subsidy scheme introduced in 2007 to replace the pre-Euro and Euro I diesel vehicles is regarded as a failure, with owners of fewer than a quarter of them applying for the subsidy by the end of last year. Dr Man and Greenpeace campaign officer Prentice Koo Wai-muk said the government should increase grants, make the scheme mandatory and set a deadline for replacement.

In November, the government proposed raising licence fees for more than 30,000 older commercial vehicles, but nothing further was done after truck drivers’ groups expressed opposition.

New measures such as electronic road pricing, further bus-route rationalisation and pilot low-emission zones have been proposed by concern groups for many years. They are now included in a consultation paper on the air-quality-objective review to be released this summer. But no timetable has been laid out for their introduction.


Tough action needed now on air pollution

Jul 15, 2009

The government has long blamed high pollution levels in Hong Kong largely on emissions from factories and power plants in Guangdong province. Clear skies of late have been put down to effective policies on both sides of the border. This newspaper’s study of data from the Environmental Protection Department’s monitoring stations certainly shows an improvement in air quality at the rooftop level over the past four years. Alarmingly, though, what we breathe on our streets has become dangerously unhealthy.

We found that during the first half of this year, the air pollution level at roadside stations in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok was above the “very high” 100 mark for 1,066 hours, or the equivalent of more than 44 days. The figure was more than six times worse than in 2005. Predictably, authorities have responded by pointing to Guangdong. They say regionally produced ozone is mixing with pollutants which descend to street level, causing the high readings.

The explanation is at odds with what scientists we have spoken to contend. They say that purely and simply, the problem is homegrown. Vehicle exhaust fumes are mostly at fault.

Scientific study of pollution is not exact. A multitude of often complex factors can cause poor air quality. Findings are open to interpretation. But there can be no quibbling with the data; in this case, it shows that we are increasingly exposed to unhealthy air when we take to our busiest streets.

It is wrong for officials to shrug their shoulders and say there is little they can do because the source of the problem is out of their reach. Their lack of urgency in tackling pollution from vehicles reveals an ignorance of data that their own environmental department has collected. Policies have been implemented, but they are clearly not sufficient. Options long available to the government, ranging from action on idling vehicle engines to electronic road pricing remain untried. The approach belies the seriousness of the problem.

The government is not ignoring the problem. Taxis and many buses now run on clean fuel. Tax breaks are on offer for buyers of environmentally friendly cars. Nonetheless, the poor air quality readings show that a tougher stand is necessary.

A sound start would be to adopt higher World Health Organisation standards than those proposed by a review of our air quality objectives, and to put in place a timetable for their implementation. The government has suggested that the least-stringent control level be adopted for the key pollutants sulphur dioxide, ozone and fine air particles. Legislation banning idling vehicles with running engines has to be promptly put before lawmakers. Next, concerted effort must be made to rid our roads of the tens of thousands of old buses and trucks with polluting diesel engines. Road pricing and pedestrian streets must be among measures given serious consideration.

The health risks of high pollution levels are well proven. Hong Kong cannot afford to take the least intrusive steps. The problem is a collective one, but the government has to take the lead. Tough action is needed and it has to be taken quickly.

Blog: Is Hong Kong eco-trendy or eco-serious?


Miranda Leitsinger, CNN

HONG KONG, China (CNN) — A plastic bag levy, a total indoor smoking ban and skyscrapers shutting the lights off? There has been a flurry of environmentally-friendly activity in Hong Kong over the past few weeks.

Piles of plastic bags are a common sight on street corners in Hong Kong.

Tuesday marked the beginning of the environmental levy on plastic bags. For every plastic bag a customer takes at certain retail outlets, they will be charged 50 Hong Kong cents (US$0.06). Green signs have sprouted up at these outlets to inform shoppers of the new fee.

The previous week, a full ban on indoor smoking in public places came into effect. Bars, nightclubs, massage businesses and mahjong-tin kau (Chinese dominoes) premises that had earlier received an extended deferment of the ban are now forced to implement it.

Piles of plastic bags are a common sight on street corners in Hong Kong.

And in late June, more than 3,500 buildings and groups in the southern Chinese enclave turned out the lights on a skyline known around the world for its nighttime illumination.

What is going on here? Is Hong Kong, a city that is often shrouded in smog, getting eco-serious or eco-trendy? What do you think? Sound Off below

In a city where piles of plastic bags on street corners are not uncommon — even being accosted by them while frolicking in the sea here is not unusual — and smoking goes hand in hand with a beer or Cosmopolitan martini, I was pleasantly surprised by the moves.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr. Yok Chow said earlier this year that tobacco “remains the major attributable factor to the top five leading causes of death in Hong Kong” and claims some 6,900 lives here yearly.

A stroll on Monday through one of the city’s popular nighttime and commercial neighborhoods not only revealed the usual plastic bag mess, but also smokers puffing away in bars.

At some bars, management set up ashtrays the size of kitchen garbage cans on the sidewalks for their customers to smoke one step outside the venue.

When I spoke with staff at three different places, one said she was unsure about the requirements of the new law, another said smoking just outside the venue was fine (as long as it didn’t bother anyone else) and a third told me I could actually smoke inside the bar by open windows.

I spoke with the head of the Tobacco Control Office, which has 85 officers on the team who perform unannounced inspections and look into complaints. He told me that venues were not fined for violations — but violators could be hit with fines of up to $5,000 HK dollars ($645).

“The venue managers themselves do not have any accountability or punishment that will be imposed on them, even if they do not enforce the law. In a way, it’s a bit different from overseas legislation,” Lam said. “What we are working on is a kind of a collaboration — on one hand we try to engage the venue managers to support us, on the other hand we want to emphasize the role of education and publicity.”

The efforts are promising, but I fear old habits die hard and wonder about Hong Kong’s commitment to improving the environment for its residents.

As for me, I will carry a cloth bag for groceries and the Tobacco Control hotline number in my mobile phone to do my part to help make this city eco-serious.

Hazardous Wastes – Best Practices for Co-Processing and Management in Cement Kilns

Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate

Umbrella Project 7 is intended to promote the use of hazardous and other industrial wastes as a reliable alternate, renewable source of energy for clinker production in cement kilns. Umbrella Project 7 will demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of co-firing various types of hazardous and other industrial wastes safely. The goal of the Umbrella Project is to provide cement kilns a reliable, affordable supply of renewable energy, as well to serve as a clean, safe destruction technology for waste management in Asia Pacific Partnership member countries. Commercially available technologies will be demonstrated at cement plants in India and Australia.

Detail on:

Government snubbing efforts by company to utilise solid waste


In the article (“Nurturing growth”, June 22), Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen talked about “changing the relationship between government, business and the market”. This certainly seems to be the time to adjust the balance between these relationships.

Given that finances are tight, the government should encourage more private enterprises to participate in the development of Hong Kong.

From my recent experience with the Environmental Protection Department, the message I received is that private sector involvement in public services, such as waste management, is not encouraged even if it can demonstrate substantial savings and environmental benefits.

Green Island’s eco-co-combustion system is an environmentally friendly and cost-efficient waste management solution. Sludge and municipal solid waste would be used as a refuse-derived fuel at our cement plant. The system boasts a number of benefits. For the treatment of sludge and solid waste, it presents a significant upfront cost saving of more than HK$6 billion compared to the department’s proposal. With sludge and solid waste being used to replace at least 40 per cent of coal used in the cement plant, there will be a net improvement in total emissions. In addition, there will be no residue ash as it would be used as clinker in cement manufacturing.

Our proposal for sludge treatment has already been denied, while for the treatment of the sold waste, we understand the department’s upcoming tenders have restricted its proposed integrated waste management facility to either Tsang Tsui or Shek Kwu Chau, so our proposal cannot be considered.

The eco-co-combustion model represents a good example of how the private sector can participate in Hong Kong’s environmental development. Instead, we are being prevented from competing. We hope the department will take heed of Mr Tsang’s words and consider private participation and not just stick to the conventional government-owned design-build-operate model.

Don Johnston, executive director, Green Island Cement (Holdings)

Environmental Levy Scheme on Plastic Shopping Bags