Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

August 29th, 2011:

China avoided measuring air pollutants: Wikileaks

29 August 2011

US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that Chinese authorities didn’t measure the levels of dangerous air pollutants for fear of the political consequences. One of these pollutants, PM2.5, is found at levels 5-10 times higher than the WHO guidelines and poses the greatest risk to public health.

China has not measured data on the most dangerous types of air pollution because it is afraid of the political consequences, according to US diplomatic cables.

This assessment, which comes to light as the government prepares to upgrade its air quality monitoring system, was among the central findings of cables from the US consulate in Guangzhou that were released on Wednesday by WikiLeaks.

Diplomats based in the industrial heartland of Guangdong – known as the workshop of the world and also one of the worst areas for acid rain and other pollution – looked in detail at monitoring systems and health impacts in 2006.

Based on research by local scientists, the consulate noted in a cable dated 16 August that small-particulate matter known as PM2.5, was 5-10 times higher than suggested by World Health Organisation guidelines.

It said the findings were “alarming”, because PM2.5 is not on the government index of air pollutants yet it is deemed to be of highest concern for public health because the particles are so fine they can enter into the lungs, contribute to acute respiratory symptoms, heart disease, childhood illnesses and premature deaths.

The diplomats observed, however, that this form of pollution was not being systematically measured and made public because the findings were likely to be too sensitive for the authorities.

“Those lobbying for its inclusion in an index of pollutants conceded that including a pollutant whose current levels would measure so far above acceptable standards would be politically difficult,” the cable said.

Problems about transparency extended to academia, according to another cable dated 19 September 2006, which describes: “Academics and research scientists in Guangdong, who are increasingly concerned about the region’s serious air pollution, but feel pressured to tone down their comments lest they face cuts in research funding … Scientists acknowledge that lack of transparency for existing air pollution data is a major problem both for research and policy making.”

Diplomats who attempted to research the possible links between pollution and birth defects were denied meeting requests on the grounds that the subject was “too sensitive”.

PM2.5 was not the only problem. Until now, Ozone – another dangerous pollutant – has also been omitted from the index, When the US Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation William Wehrum visited the Guangdong Environmental Information Center in 2006, a member of his delegation noted: “The raw data on the LCD screen showed extremely high levels of O3 (Ozone)”.

Since the cable was written in November 2006, however, environmentalists have commended the progress that China has made in measuring, disclosing and reducing air pollution, but many of these concern remain today.

The state media reported on Thursday that a new index would soon be introduced. Expectations are high that it will include ozone for the first time. Less certain is whether PM2.5 will finally be added.

Source : Guardian

We’re choking up

Hong Kong Standard – 29 August 2011

If you’re gasping for air today, the Hong Kong Observatory has bad news – you can expect more of the same for the next few days.

The news came as air quality plunged yesterday, with the air pollution index reaching 163 in Causeway Bay, 147 in Central and 145 in Mong Kok.

A reading between 100 and 200 is considered “very high” and hazardous to health.

The temperature hit 35 degrees Celsius in some areas.

A 48-year-old woman collapsed while hiking in Sai Kung. She was taken to hospital by helicopter.

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department said people with heart or respiratory illnesses, the elderly and children should avoid staying in areas with heavy traffic. He said the air pollution index will remain higher than normal in the next few days because of the poor dispersion of pollutants amid light winds and high regional pollution caused by photochemical smog.

The smog is the result of the reaction of sunlight and chemicals, which leaves particles in the air – a problem of modern industrialization.

The spokesman said that a continental airstream is bringing very hot weather and light winds to Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta. The strong sunshine and stagnant air hinders the dispersion of pollutants, leading to high levels of smog in the city.

“We expect the photochemical smog to still be active and the dispersion in urban areas to remain poor,” said the spokesman.

“The general and roadside API readings are expected to stay higher than normal in the next few days.”

To add to the discomfort, the mercury soared to 35 degrees Celsius in areas such as Sha Tin and Sheung Shui.

Hong Kong Observatory scientific officer Cheung Sai-kit said the hot and choking weather will last for three to four more days. Hot weather makes it more difficult for suspended particles to be blown away.

He said Typhoon Nanmadol, which is approaching Taiwan, will have a limited effect on Hong Kong. The expected track takes it past Taiwan and into eastern China, far from Hong Kong.

Nanmadol has killed at least 10 people in the Philippines and caused flooding and landslides. It also knocked out power in the northern areas of the country.

The Education Bureau has called on schools to reduce outdoor activities for all students. The Labour Department has also urged employers to assess the risks of outdoor work. Workers who do not feel well should inform their supervisors, it said.

Credibility sorely lacking in consultation on third runway

The neutrality of Airport Authority as host of the exercise

South China Morning Post – 29 August 2011

The public consultation for the Airport Authority’s Master Plan 2030, which proposes ways to expand airport capacity, including building a third runway, ends this Friday. Are the opinions expressed so far rational? Has appropriate and sufficient information been accessible in a timely manner to the public, beyond just professionals and politicians? Is the process of consultation fair?

There has been an open English-language platform for exchanging diverse views and counterarguments. Topics have included the operational and management inefficiency of the authority; missing opportunities for collaboration between airports in the delta region; grand promises of economic benefits and employment; neglect of social and environmental costs; and, irreversible effects to the ecology and its diversity. Like most people in the discussion, I see some good parts within the plan. But I am sceptical of many areas of it while we try to determine what is best for Hong Kong people.

Unfortunately, Chinese-language newspapers have portrayed a polarisation between economic development and environmental protection. That leaves a false impression that environmental protection is a stumbling block for economic development, without realising that the objective of pursuing growth and prosperity is ultimately to have a better quality of life for human beings within ecological limits.

The fact that the Airport Authority has been assigned to host the consultation is fundamentally flawed. It is running a business and, like any other corporation, it will not be so foolish as to fully report to clients all negative consequences of a particular plan or proposal. This may be why, only after two-thirds of the consultation period has passed, and following tremendous pressure from activist groups, it succumbed and released eight initial assessment reports of around 2,000 pages, which were only available in English.

Many people said these reports and the authority’s grand proposal are incoherent. It is like a jigsaw puzzle of a “white elephant” without all the pieces. The public is expected to digest this huge volume of information in a month. Incredibly, the consultation period on phasing out incandescent light bulbs is the same as for this huge infrastructure project costing more than HK$130 billion, with much larger long-term consequences.

The role of the Hong Kong government is deeply conflicted. It has an inescapable role to balance the interests of individuals against the common good, and to inform the public not just of any positive values of a third runway, but also the potentially negative aspects, too. However, it is hiding behind the Airport Authority’s sole pursuit of economic interests.

If we look at cities such as London, Frankfurt and Munich, their airport expansion proposals were not created only by their airport management companies. The British government, for example, took control of consultation on the third runway at Heathrow, as did the state governments of Frankfurt and Munich for their expansion plans. Being accountable to the public, the British government hired independent consultants to estimate carbon emissions from building an extra runway.

Could we see similar processes to assess the impact on our environment and public health? Would this not show that we are committed to a “do our best” approach, which means taking all practical steps to reduce pollution, rather than the “waste bin” approach that falsely assumes our environment is not bad enough?

The consultation will soon end. Society has been left with more scepticism than trust in the Airport Authority. In the opinion of many respectable professionals, academics and politicians, a government-led consultation would be more credible. So, let’s have a second-stage consultation led by the Hong Kong government, which has a more comprehensive grasp of overall economic development and regional planning.

Mayling Chan is CEO of Friends of the Earth (HK)