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October 15th, 2011:

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution by HK staff | HK Magazine Online

April 2010 – respirable suspended fine particulates levels (PM2.5) in micrograms per cubic meter of air (the most lethal form of pollution)

Let’s see some cities in the world PM2.5 levels:

Vancouver 4.8, Sydney 7.0, Hobart 7.1, Perth 8, Stavanger 8.1, Adelaide 8.1, Washington DC 10.7, Madrid 13.1, London 13.5,Los Angeles-Long Beach port 14.8,

Hannover 15.4, Rotterdam 17.9,Singapore 19, Metro Manila 21, Paris 22.9, Dar es Salaam 23, Athens 27.4, Beirut 31, Lima 34.2, Krakow 35.5,

HONG KONG CENTRAL ROADSIDE 36 ! , Dakar 38, Accra 49.8

The (no political will to act) TSANG Pollution Legacy – good riddance !

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

June Ng and Jakki Phillips head into the smog to investigate Hong Kong’s bad air crisis.

By HK staff | published Apr 01, 2010

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

Hong Kong’s air pollution index hit an alarming record of 500

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

One of the five pollutants in the air – Carbon Monoxide

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

Satelite image of Hong Kong

Wake Up and Smell the Pollution

Common kind of mask cannot filter out particulates less than 10 micrometers

Hong Kong’s air pollution. You know it’s always been there, and you know on some level that you’re breathing bad air every day, but once you get used to it, you kind of forget about it. Until one day, our sky turns completely yellow and a sickly haze literally engulfs us all.

Without the sudden arrival of a severe sandstorm late last month, we might not have had the crucial wake-up call to our worsening air pollution that we desperately need. And though the cloud has lifted, the government still has its head buried in the sand. When faced with the city’s air pollution index (API) hitting an alarming record high of 500, their less than confidence-boosting response was to claim, “It’s really just sand you’re seeing, not pollution.” Considering that this figure was more than double the previous record high API of 202 in July 2008, you would think the government would take bold and decisive action when faced with a truly alarming reading. Perhaps a few announcements outlining a pollution-busting action plan rather than simply blaming sand from the mainland?

So with the sandstorm thankfully behind us, now is a great time to take a good, hard look at the mess we’re in and figure out just how we got here. How bad is our air pollution problem? Can we expect more choking sandstorms? What’s the government going to do about our air pollution woes? We also look into how you can prepare for the next sand storm, and finally, what you can do to help. Hold your breath, and here we go.

What Exactly is in the Air?

There are six pollutants contributing to our bad air: sulfur dioxide, particulate matters, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and lead. Last year the Air Quality Objectives Review (AQO) was carried out to re-examine and reset the standard acceptable levels for these pollutants. The original guidelines were drawn up in 1987 and based on WHO guidelines of the time. But, rather shockingly, the government chose only to meet WHO’s entry-level standards—which are for developing countries—rather than adopting levels for developed countries.

For example, the proposed annual objective for the pollutant PM10 (particulates of 10 micrometers or less) is 50 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter), only slightly lower than existing outdated levels of 55μg/m3; while PM2.5, the most dangerous particulate because it is respirable, gets a target of 35μg/m3 (the target for developed countries is 10μg/m3). The objective proposed for sulfur dioxide will be 125 μg/m3, yet the WHO guideline is 20 μg/m3. Mike Kilburn from think tank Civic Exchange says the government only wants to follow the levels for developing countries because it means we’re “allowed” to have dirtier air. This means pollution statistics won’t look so bad and it will seem like we don’t have many bad air days because higher levels of toxic particulates are deemed “acceptable.”

For example, official government data from last year only shows us suffering 40 dirty days, that is, days considered to have excessive pollution levels. If we had to meet WHO guidelines for developed countries our pollution levels would regularly exceed the targets and we’d probably end up with 300 dirty days which would reflect badly in government pollution records. And there is more worrying news. The biggest power company, CLP, recently announced its emissions of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and respirable suspended particulates have increased by six percent, 20 percent and 30 percent respectively. The rise occurred after they lowered the proportion of natural gas in the fuel mix because they were worried gas in the South China Sea might run out in 2012. But in 2008 the mainland government promised power companies in Hong Kong a steady natural gas supply. But until our government builds the pipelines, the power companies will continue to conserve gas and as a consequence, further pollute our air.

Christian Masset of Clear The Air, an environmental NGO that has been advocating the improvement of air quality in Hong Kong since 1997, thinks the government isn’t doing enough to tackle major polluters in the private sector such as the power companies and bus companies. He says: “We have been talking to the government about introducing an ‘agglomerator’ when burning fuel, which is a technology that can cut down 90 percent of respirable suspended particulates. But after a year-and-a-half they still say they need more time to study.”

Public transport is also a big problem as there are still many Euro I and II buses on the road, together with heavy diesel vehicles. (The “Euro Emissions Standard” is a measurement of vehicle emissions used in EU countries; the higher the number, the lower the emissions). Lau also says a contributing reason for traffic pollution is the inadequate subsidy program for converting heavy trucks from diesel to cleaner models such as Euro IV or above. He says that while the owner of a diesel taxi can get a one-off $40,000 grant to convert to LPG, the subsidiary for trucks varies and can be as low as $10,000. The result of the taxi scheme is that 99 percent now operate in this cleaner mode while the truck scheme has been far less successful. As for bunker-fueled ferries and container ships (the cheapest, and by far most toxic type of fuel), while there are regulations in many countries that stipulate they must switch to low-sulfur fuel when entering the port of the city, there are no such rules in Hong Kong. “The government’s slow pace in dealing with things shows whether they think tackling air pollution is an urgent matter,” says Prentice Koo from Greenpeace.

Don’t Be Blinded by the Sandstorm

While the sandstorm’s heavy dust content did contribute to the record high pollution readings of up to 500, we mustn’t forget that for four days before the storm struck, the Air Pollution Index (API) was at the “very high” level in urban areas such as Causeway Bay, Mong Kok, Central/Western and Eastern District. Our air was bad to start with long before the sandstorm rolled into town.

But while the government rightly encouraged “contingency measures” such as urging people to use public transport as much as possible, drivers to turn off their engines while stationary, asking power companies to use cleaner fuel, and even smokers to smoke less, why aren’t they actively trying to bring down the pollution on a regular basis, or issuing people with guidelines on what to do during a bar air day? Secretary of the Environmental Bureau Edward Yau claims that air pollution, unlike typhoons, would not affect people’s daily routines.

Greenpeace climate change campaigner Prentice Koo is upset by the government’s response, which he thinks is irresponsible. He says: “Edward Yau said air pollution would not affect people’s daily lives as much as a typhoon does. But it does affect our health.” Professor Anthony Hedley, professor of Community Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, says, “the sandstorm is definitely a potential health hazard and will have caused many problems such as eye and skin irritation and upper respiratory symptoms. However, the sandstorm will probably not be as toxic as Hong Kong’s usual daily mix of combustion particles and gases, that throughout the year is caused by Hong Kong’s own pollution emissions from traffic, shipping, port activities and power generation.”

The severe index reading may, in fact, be a timely wake-up call reminding us how unacceptable our air pollution levels are. Professor Alexis Lau, a meteorologist with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says: “Although the API surge to 500 was due to the sandstorm, that doesn’t mean that our air is fine and that there aren’t things we can do to reduce pollution here.” According to Lau, the last time Hong Kong had a similar crisis was in 1996—but the concentration of pollutants in the air was half that of the recent scare. Also deeply concerned about Hong Kong’s pollution levels is Mike Kilburn, the environmental program manager of local think tank Civic Exchange. He says: “The sandstorm has helped make people aware that air pollution is an issue, and the government has to respond to the public.”

Does the Air Quality Index Work?

Yes, it does work—but the statistics will be a day old by the time you read them. The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) reports the real-time general and roadside APIs hourly and these indices are calculated by comparing the measured concentrations of the major air pollutants with their respective health-related Air Quality Objectives (AQOs) established under the Air Pollution Control Ordinance. Some data used to calculate the so-called hourly “real-time” indices are not actually real-time—the amount of total suspended particulate and respirable suspended particulates (RSP) are measured 24 hours ahead of the time published on the website, meaning that the API doesn’t truly reflect what is going on at any given moment.

Also, the API is only determined by the highest concentration of one of five pollutants in the air (sulfur dioxide, particulate matters, nitrogen dioxide, together with ozone and carbon monoxide). Therefore, the index fails to address the pollution levels of the other four. But not many Hongkongers are aware of this. Edwin Lau from Friends of the Earth says the government has a responsibility to educate the public about how the index is formed. “The government should break down all the scientific data to a laymen level so people can understand.” It is also technologically feasible to calculate a real-time index although the government doesn’t provide the service. Professor Anthony Hedley founded his own Hedley Index ( last year that gives true real-time pollution levels across the city. The website also calculates the value of tangible and intangible loss caused by pollution, for example, the cost of health care or lost productivity due to pollution. “The present API is totally useless as an instrument for risk communication,” says Hedley. “The so-called ‘health advisories’ issued by the EPD, without any authority whatsoever from the public health specialists in Hong Kong, are seriously misleading. There is very little possibility that any measures taken on the basis of these so-called health warnings will benefit anyone.”

He also stresses that the damage pollutants do to our health occurs at levels below the air quality objectives because they are so lax. The Council for Sustainable Development has suggested the government set up a three-tier warning system for air pollution, similar to the rain storm warnings, which allows people to work from home on days with a high pollution index. Environmental Secretary Edward Yau has not promised that the department will consider it.

Why Weren’t We Warned?

Less than 24 hours before Hong Kong’s pollution levels rocketed to record-breaking highs of 500—the API was predicting levels of only 180. So why was the forecast so inaccurate? The most obvious reason, as previously mentioned, is because the guidelines on acceptable particulate levels are out of date, but there is also the fact that the Hong Kong Observatory does not have equipment to detect or forecast sandstorms. Greenpeace campaigner Prentice Koo says, “Everyone knows Hong Kong does not suffer from earthquakes but we still have a warning system developed for them. Shouldn’t we do the same for sandstorms that could have a direct impact on us?” Although the Hong Kong Observatory does not have the technology to predict sandstorms, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University does. According to Janet Nichol, a professor at the department of land surveying and geo-informatics at Poly U, the government could make reasonable predictions with the same technology and data that they have. The EPD say they will collaborate more with the Observatory to analyze sandstorm patterns and will make better use of their network with the mainland to issue an early notice. But there is currently no news regarding the implementation of a sandstorm warning system.

The Impact of Desertification

When Hong Kong was choked by pollution last week, we were actually feeling the impact of severe environmental degradation in China. The harmful air quality was partly caused by a sandstorm originating in northern China that blew loose dust and dirt mixed with industrial pollution down south, adding to Hong Kong’s already serious smog problem. It was China’s worst sandstorm in more than a year, affecting 270 million people across 16 provinces. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there are 24 sandstorms a year, six times the number 50 years ago, according to China Daily. The increase is the result of desertification caused by deforestation, overgrazing, drought and urban sprawl. China’s government has invested huge sums of money in projects aimed at stopping the relentless spread of sand, such as tree planting and the protection of existing foliage. But rising temperatures, increased pressures on water resources and 30 years of huge economic growth has meant limited success. In fact, China Daily reports that about 30,000 square miles of China’s grassland turned into desert over only the last few decades. So, with the number of sandstorms in China increasing and more of the country’s land crumbling to dust, we should prepare ourselves for more sore throats, headaches and stinging eyes.

Our current API is divided into five bands: Low (0 to 25), Medium (26 to 50), High (51 to 100), Very High (101 to 200) and Severe (201 to 500). When it reaches “very high” to “severe” levels, people with existing heart or respiratory illnesses may notice a mild to significant aggravation of their conditions.

What About the Animals?

While there is no official research about the effect of air pollution on animals in Hong Kong, Andy Cornish, the conservation director of the World Wide Fund (WWF), says “if people are dying prematurely because of polluted air, it will affect animals too. And if migratory birds saw a sandstorm coming, out of instinct, they would fly away.”

So what about our four-legged friends? It turns out dogs get the same health issues as humans when the pollution index is high. Vet Justin Chu says: “Even healthy dogs might get a sore throat, or develop itchy eyes or skin. But it will be worse for old dogs and those with lung and heart disease.” You’ll know if your dog is suffering from pollution if it has a hoarse bark, watery nose or keeps licking its lips. If your pet displays any of these symptoms on a bad air day, Chu’s advice is to keep them indoors. Cats are less likely to be affected by pollution because they go outside less.

The Not-So Great Outdoors

What’s the point of having mountains to hike up, trails to run along and a sea to swim in if soaring pollution levels result in government warnings telling us to “stay indoors and avoid physical exertion”? Lister Woo has been dragon boating in Hong Kong for more than 15 years but was forced to cancel his training session for the first time ever last week. “It’s never happened before and we wouldn’t cancel our practice unless we thought it could be bad for our health. We saw the government warning and decided not to risk it.” Woo paddles for the Hong Kong International Paddle Club, which will compete in the world dragon boat championships in Macau at the end of July. “It’s worrying because if we have to cancel more training sessions it could affect our performance at the competition.”

Keith Chan has been running in Hong Kong for 30 years and is the founder of He says: “I was going to go for a run last week but when I saw how high the index was, I decided against it. I definitely think pollution is getting worse and it’s affecting runners all over Hong Kong. Many people now avoid running at night because the traffic fumes are so bad. Some people only run in the hills to avoid the city center pollution. It’s a shame that pollution gets in the way of people doing a sport they enjoy.” Pollution levels above 200 are considered “severe” and carry a government warning telling us to “reduce physical exertion and outdoor activities.”

Pollution in Central reached dangerous levels one out of every eight days last year. But as outdoor sports grow in popularity in Hong Kong, more people will be risking their health in order to pursue their passions. Richard Thornton is the president of the Hong Kong Dragons Triathlon Club and says the quality of air here is a growing concern for his members. He says: “The thought of pushing hard in a training session at near maximum heart rate and swallowing lungfuls of Hong Kong’s air is becoming more distressing because all triathletes want to train, but then feel restricted because of the pollution levels. The effects of training in these conditions can definitely be felt afterward. It would be a shame to see participation in such a great sport dwindle as people shy away due to air pollution concerns.”

It’s not just local sporting clubs and associations that are struggling against the fumes. Some international runners refuse to take part in the Hong Kong marathon because of poor air quality and concerns were raised as to whether it was safe for teams to train before the Rugby Sevens. With the tourism board promoting Hong Kong as a hiking destination, we should also consider the impact air pollution has on the tourism industry. Winnie Leung is a volunteer hiking guide who regularly takes out groups of tourists. She says: “I cancelled three hikes last week because of the pollution, which meant disappointing a lot of people. Unless Hong Kong can clean up its act, I worry hikers will go elsewhere and our tourism will suffer.”

Leung’s sentiments are shared by Michael Pieper who runs his own hiking website ( and Facebook hiking group. He says: “High pollution levels in Hong Kong can be directly related to the number of visitors to my hiking website. When there are blue skies, visitor numbers soar and likewise when pollution skyrockets, visitor numbers drop right off. There is only so much that I can do to promote Hong Kong’s vast array of hiking trails. The rest comes from the government’s commitment to caring for the health of its people by cleaning up our dirty skies.”

Also see: how to protect yourself during the next bad air day.

Pollution Solutions by Scott Murphy | HK Magazine Online 2006

2006 , YES, 2006 – no political will in Hong Kong  = continued pollution

The TSANG Legacy 2011 = no political will in Hong Kong = continued pollution

Pollution Solutions

Our pollution problem seems utterly hopeless. But other cities have been where we are – and cleaned up. Five pollution-busters who beat the smog in their own cities give some advice to Hong Kong.

By Scott Murphy | published May 18, 2006

Pollution Solutions

Looking across Victoria Harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui on April 25, 2006

Pollution Solutions

Same scene on May 9, after the mainland’s “golden week” factory shutdown

Pollution Solutions

Los Angeles, USA

Pollution Solutions

Bogota, Colombia

Pollution Solutions

Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA

Pollution Solutions

Sudbury, Ontoria, Canada

Pollution Solutions

Mexico City, Mexico


Population: 6 million
: Jim Lents, executive director of South Coast Air Quality Management District from 1986-1997.

The Problem: “In the 1970s and into the 80s, your eyes burned so bad that it was difficult to be on the streets in the afternoon. You could only take about half a breath of air. Visibility was so bad that tourists wouldn’t even be able to see the mountains surrounding the city.

“The cities weren’t doing a lot because they were afraid of offending the industries. But after pressure from environmental groups, the government started passing laws. One of the most important groups was the state legislature. Each county had individual agencies blaming each other and not wanting to do anything. So the state legislature created a single agency (the South Coast Air Quality Management District, or CAQMD) overseeing them all. It had a $30 million budget and 300 employees even in the 70s.”

The Solution: “You first have to identify the problem. Then the government has to be inspired to say, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore. We’re going to make radical changes.’ In our case, in1975, they started to hold legislative hearings to raise the visibility of the pollution issue. After the environmental groups made a big issue out of it with the state legislature, the first round of cleanup started in the 70s. A statewide Clean Air Act passed in 1987, starting the second round. In the 80s, we spent a lot of effort to understand the sources of our emissions. Then we started to develop cost-effective control measures. We looked at the situation in economic terms. We decided to spend up to US$10,000 per person on cleanup measures and pollution control equipment. You can clean up pollution for cheaper than that per person, but that’s the figure we decided on.

“We also came up with strict regulations on automobile and factory emissions. We even set regulations on barbecues and restaurants. Those that didn’t comply were fined heavily. When our group (CAQMD) had 1,000 employees and a budget of about US$100 million, the board of directors was changed because we thought it was getting too cozy. I believe these agencies need to reinvent themselves every decade or they become too interconnected with the industries they regulate. We put together a comprehensive air pollution management plan in 1989. It was revised in 1994, 1997 and 2000. Every few years, you have to step back and take a look at what new control measures should be considered.”

The Result: “Air pollution levels came down dramatically throughout the 90s. We were able to cut pollution in half from 1977 to 1987. And then we cut that in half from 1987 to 1997. Since then, our progress has been slower. The mobile sources of pollution have been controlled, but not the ports. That’s where the big battle is looming now. The ports are protected by international laws. Trains and ships are just being addressed. Los Angeles has one of the busiest ports in the world, second to Hong Kong or Singapore. It’s much more difficult to regulate. Now we are trying to get cleaner fuels and set up shore-side agencies. Otherwise, now you can see the mountains everyday. The job isn’t over, but we’ve made tremendous progress. It’s slow, very slow, but in the end, it’s very rewarding.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “Identify ways to clean up, develop regulations and decide what is a fair regulatory burden.”

➔ “Establish an authority to implement those regulations.”

➔ “Police the regulations. In Los Angeles, there was a huge contingent of people enforcing the rules. They tried to tailor the fines to the size of the industry, sometimes in the millions of dollars. Offenders were identified and prosecuted.”

➔ “Recognize that you can’t walk away. Plans have to be reviewed at regular intervals. New technologies have to be looked at to see what can be added to the plans.”


Population: 7 million
Problem-solver: Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation (1995-97), who worked with his brother, then-mayor Enrique Penalosa (pictured right, with Gil in helmet), to clean the air.

The Problem: “During the early 90s, Bogotá was one of the most polluted cities in South America. There were a lot of respiratory problems, mostly caused by cars. Traffic was chaotic. Buses were running everywhere they wanted. There were no regulations. Everybody would park their cars on the sidewalks. It was crazy. People had almost given up. There was no sense of pride.”

The Solution: “We created a mass rapid traffic system which has since become a model for many other countries. We set up dedicated lanes for buses. People cut their commuting time by three-quarters. We made 180 parks. We cleaned up the creeks and put monetary sanctions on companies that were polluting them. We created 250 kilometers of dedicated bicycle paths citywide. My brother and I closed 113 kilometers of road every Sunday and got 1.5 million people out each weekend to enjoy it. We introduced a citywide car-free day once a year, which created a lot of talk. It was a way to take measurements of how contaminated the city was on a regular day. But it was also a way to get people thinking about their future, and to force future governments to think about public transport options in the future. After initial opposition, it’s now an annual event. When my brother initially made these changes, he was nearly impeached. But by the end of his term, he was our most popular mayor of the past 30 years. But at the end of that first year things were rough.”

The Result: “We changed the way residents thought about the city. Now anybody running for office has parks, environment and the quality of life as major issues on their platform. For many years, people were thinking cars, cars, cars. All of a sudden, people got to thinking that the issue was essentially about moving people. So it became pedestrians first, then bicycles, mass transit, and finally, if there was any money left, cars. People realized it’s better to have a sidewalk than a road. That’s a major shift. There will always be many more needs than resources. Once you start saying pedestrians are first, then you can find the way. Now all streets built in the city have to be designed for use by pedestrians, then mass transport and then by cars. It’s important for people to realize this.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “Just do it. There will always be people who can give you 101 reasons why something cannot be done.”
➔ “People said nothing could be done with mass transit. In 36 months, we changed it.”

➔ “It takes leadership. Leadership includes having the vision and the capacity to do the things you set out to do. Vision with no action creates frustration. It takes both to change things.”

➔ “You have to start with projects that are highly visible and have a really high chance of success. They provide you with the credibility to tackle more difficult ones.”


Population: 170,000
Problem-solver: Wayne Cropp, lawyer and director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau

The Problem: “In 1969, Chattanooga was recognized as having the worst air in America. On an anecdotal basis, there were days when you’d go outside and you could only see a few yards in front of you because of the pollution. You’d have to turn on your headlights to drive in the middle of the day. There was a TNT plant (producing more of the explosive than any other factory on Earth), which released nitrogen dioxide into the air everyday. Women’s clothes hanging out to dry would be eaten up by the pollution. Men would carry changes of shirts with them because they would stain just from walking around in the air. We had the highest amount of total suspended particulates (TSP or simply “soot”) in the country. We were first runner-up to Los Angeles in benzene-soluble organic particles (BSO). When you’re cited on national news by Walter Cronkite as being the worst city in the US, you know something has to be done.”

The Solution: “The medical community was one of the first that came on board. They rose up and started to educate the public about the health effects of pollution. They held annual seminars and invited national speakers to talk about respiratory problems. This was cutting edge in those days.

“We also created our own air pollution control program, which pre-dates state and national efforts. A local ordinance was created, calling for companies to comply with certain standards. Companies that came into compliance by the deadline were recognized publicly. Those that didn’t were heavily fined. The business community responded and led the effort to clean up. There was also tremendous community support for the effort, which meant there was strong political support. You need political muscle to make things like this happen. Two thousand citizens submitted letters and telegrams, which arrived in bushel baskets at the mayor’s office, demanding something be done about the problem. Eventually, there was a ‘visioning process’ in the late 70s, where 2,000 ideas were submitted for what Chattanooga could, should and ultimately has become. A lot of these were public-private partnerships.”

The Result: “We were the first metropolitan area on the US national ‘dirty air list’ that achieved what was called ‘attainment’ status – or clean air (one of the few cities in America to do so). Chattanooga is now in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency for control of particulate matter. We have a program in place to maintain and inspect automobiles. We will soon be in compliance with the new national EPA standards, which are the toughest standards yet. The air quality continues to get better every year.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “The medical community responded first, letting everyone know the dangers of what they were breathing.”

➔ “Once the community understood, they responded and demanded that the government do something. The community, alongside business leaders, stepped forward with a plan to attack the problem.”

➔ “We applied the ‘carrot and the stick’ method to offending companies. Those that complied were recognized. Those that didn’t were fined heavily.”

➔ “We created a continuous education process with the public and children. Children were educated about the effects of air pollution, which are still being felt today.”


Population: 155,000
Problem-solver: Dr. Peter Beckett, associate professor of biology at Laurentian University

The Problem: “Sudbury is an industrial town with three different smelters belonging to two different companies. The smelting industry here goes back to about 1929. When they roasted the ore, they were essentially burning off the sulfur, which would come out of the chimneys as sulfur dioxide. Up to two million tons of sulfur dioxide was coming out a year during maximum production in the 50s and 60s. It wiped out all vegetation. Seventeen thousand hectares of land was devastated. There was also a nearby forest that had its growth stunted – another 64,000 hectares. It all became a barren zone, just rock that turned black from the sulfur. The national notion of Sudbury was, ‘Who wants to go and live in that hellhole?’ It was called a moonscape, a horrible place to live. Less is known about the effect on the people, but you can be assured that there were all kinds of lung problems.”

The Solution: “The first thing to happen was the environmental movement of the 60s, which spurred on the will to change. The Ontario government then set up the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which established emission limits on sulfur dioxide. This was followed by the typical business reaction of trying to delay the implementation of the limits. But the government held firm. The only choice the industry had left was to modernize. They rebuilt one of the smelters in the west end of town, a 381-meter chimney. This sent the pollution higher up into the air, where it would be more diluted. They also installed electrostatic precipitators, which remove most of the metal particles from the emissions. The sulfur was added to water to create sulfuric acid, which was then sold to the chemical industry (a benefit to the company).

“In the 70s, as pollution started to go down, people started to wonder if they could do anything to improve the landscape. This led to the Sudbury Regreening Project of 1978, which was launched to improve the environment and the quality of life. People realized if Sudbury were to survive, it would have to diversify. To do that, they would have to improve the city’s image to attract new industries and business. An advisory committee comprised of citizens, organizations and technical people was formed. It would go off into the communities with black hills and green them. Next they worked on the 330 lakes in the area and started cleaning up the watersheds. After all this time, the cleanup is only about halfway completed.”

The Result: “Sulfur dioxide levels are now less than 10 percent of what they were in the 60s, with further government-mandated reductions due by 2008. Mining is still the largest industry, but it doesn’t dominate the way it used to. Now, Sudbury is not only a regional hub, it even has a tourist industry. It has some of the best air in Canada. Ironically though, the biggest chimney is now criticized for wasting energy.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “Nobody was going to rock the boat in the 60s. Business had control. But then the university opened. This brought in people who weren’t dependent on industry, people who had nothing to lose by complaining.”

➔ “People pointed fingers both locally and internationally. The local and provincial government started working together to make changes. Once changes started, people in the community got involved.”

➔ “The Ontario Ministry of the Environment was set up and charged with creating a clean environment in Ontario. The government came down with orders and laws. If you didn’t meet them, you were fined. These were hefty fines. The first step was big. But now it’s like a technological challenge. The industry wants to improve itself.”

➔ “Cleaning pollution has to be a partnership between industry, various levels of government and concerned citizens. It has to be a real cross-section of the community, from professionals to the average citizen. Now we have a Clean Air Sudbury committee. It’s no longer an us-versus-them scenario. It’s a ‘What can we all do together?’ situation.”


Population: 17 million
Problem-solver: Nancy Kete, director of EMBARQ, a US-based center for international transportation and environment.

The Problem: “The combination of a very dense urban population, a high elevation and the volume of emissions make Mexico City one of the worst places in the world for air pollution. Two- to three-hour rush hours a day are not uncommon. But it’s also one of the most studied pollution problems on the planet. Over the past two decades, the city has taken some measures to reduce the problem. Some worked for a while, but they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of cars. They have what was once one of the best metro rail systems in the world, but it doesn’t reach into the suburbs, which is where the major population growth is. Fifty-five to 60 percent of trips made by commuters are on unregulated private transit services. They cost more than the public services, and they pollute more. They are dangerous and crime-ridden. But they’re fast and convenient. Fortunately, there is a high level of understanding that pollution is very bad and there’s a lot of pressure on the city to clean it up.”

The Solution: “The Secretary of the Environment of Mexico’s Federal District, Claudia Sheinbaum, was empowered to take on air pollution and congestion. We formed a public-private partnership between the city, EMBARQ and the World Resources Institute to find sustainable solutions to the air-quality problem. We achieved three concrete goals: We started a ‘bus rapid transit system,’ a dedicated bus lane which is now the fastest way around the city. (There are plans to extend it to the suburbs.) We modernized the bus fleet. And we installed pollution-control equipment on the new buses, aiming to achieve the emission reductions seen in the US or Europe. We had a 90 percent reduction in particulate matter.”

The Result: “Working with a national laboratory in Mexico, we put personal exposure monitors on passengers to discover what they were breathing at both street level and on the bus. We found they had 35 percent less exposure to particulate matter and 50 percent less exposure to carbon monoxide when on the new buses. Riders now want more bus routes. The plan was a pilot – but it was successful. Now Mexico is committed to feeding this service into the suburbs. What we did was merely a drop in the bucket, but for those 250,000 daily passengers, these are huge improvements.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “No city will succeed unless it has a champion at a very high level. There needs to be a politically empowered champion. They have to want it, understand the political risks and be ready to take them.”

➔ “If I were to give the Chief Executive of Hong Kong advice, it would be this: Be bold. The political gains will outweigh the risks if you do it right.”
➔ “You have to have public-private partnerships. They’re important. The role we had was as creative and constructive disrupters of the status quo.”

➔ “You’ll need to fix the transit system through a combination of segregated corridors, congestion and parking charges, and new standards on fuel quality and emissions.”

➔ “The biggest barriers are not technological, but lie somewhere between the political and the inertial.”