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January 16th, 2012:

China’s Pollution Is So Insane You Can See It From Space


China’s Pollution Is So Insane You Can See It From Space

Description: China's Pollution Is So Insane You Can See It From Space

This is really bad. NASA has published an image of the pollution haze taking all over the North China Plain. Yes, it’s so bad that you can see it taking over thousands of square miles from space.

Things were so bad that visibility dropped to 200 meters. The Chinese capital’s airport had to cancel 43 flights and delayed 80 more.

The first image—taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite—shows the situation on January 10. The entire North China Plain was covered with a gray pollution haze. You can also see white patches: that’s normal fog hanging below the haze. On the second image, you can see the skies on the next day: the heaviest pollution is mostly gone, moved by the wind.

According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, the haze is mostly made of two kinds of particles, PM10 and PM2.5. The number refers to their size: 10 micrometers and 2.5 micrometers. They are made of “dust, liquid drops, and soot from burning fuel or coal.” Most of the pollution is made of PM2.5. These are highly reflective, which is why we can see them from space when their concentration is high enough.

The 10-micrometer particles enter the lungs and cause respiratory problems. The 2.5-micrometer particles can embed themselves deep in the lungs and occasionally enter the blood stream. These particles can cause cancer and extreme respiratory problems.

The problem is extremely bad. The PM10 density was 560 micrograms per cubic meter of air. In the US, concentrations of 150 micrograms per cubic meter of air are considered beyond the limit. But the PM2.5 concentration is even worse. On January 10, the concentration was literally off the scale. Things are so bad that the US Embassy in Beijing reports on the PM2.5 concentration level every hour.

This winter haze is caused by a combination of pollution and temperature inversion: cold air gets trapped by a blanket of warmer air above, causing a pocket that gets filled with pollution. In the case of China, it builds up pretty fast.

Apparently, China is planning to monitor the concentration of PM2.5 in 2016. That may be too late for much of the population, who is deeply affected by the situation. It’s no coincidence that their architects are obsessed by air quality control inside their buildings. [NASA]

Mainland shames HK in ways that go beyond smog data

South China Morning Post – 16 Jan 2012

Beijing’s honesty about pollution levels forced our city to come clean. What other examples should we heed?

At last, after years of criticism, the Hong Kong government is to begin monitoring the concentration of PM2.5 pollutants in our atmosphere.

If, like me, you are not good at acronyms, then PM stands for “particulate matter”, or particles. And 2.5 means less than 2.5 micrometres across.

That’s small. In contrast, a human hair is typically 100 micrometres across, while the diameter of a red blood cell is more like 10 micrometres.

So in other words, PM2.5 means specks of stuff – usually the unburned carbon pumped out by diesel engines and coal-fired power stations – tiny enough to penetrate deep into the bronchioles of our lungs, where they do irreparable harm.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department has long resisted publishing real-time data on these nasties, presumably because the results would be acutely embarrassing.

Last week, however, the government said it would begin monitoring PM2.5 concentrations by the end of March.

You have to suspect this change of heart was prompted by the Beijing government’s announcement a couple of weeks ago that it would begin publishing real-time PM2.5 data of its own later this month.

With Beijing, infamously one of the most polluted cities on earth, coming clean about its problems, Hong Kong was left with egg on its face. It was fast becoming even more embarrassing for the Hong Kong government to be seen as less open than Beijing than to admit the extent of its own PM2.5 pollution.

Clearly the fear of losing face can be a powerful motivation. So, in case the threat of further embarrassment might prompt action in other areas, here are six more ways in which Hong Kong lags woefully behind the mainland.

1) Unlike Hong Kong, the mainland boasts an anti-monopoly law, and the authorities are not afraid to use it to protect consumers.

Although sceptics had alleged the law was aimed mainly at shutting foreign companies out of mainland markets, last year the authorities surprised everyone when they slapped two leading state-owned enterprises, China Telecom (SEHK: 0728) and China Unicom (SEHK: 0762announcements,news) , with heavy fines for illegally conspiring to fixing broadband prices.

Meanwhile, six years after the Hong Kong government pledged to introduce its own competition law, the bill remains stuck before the Legislative Council, where the city’s powerful business interests are doing their best to water it down so they can continue to rip Hong Kong’s consumers off with impunity.

2) On the mainland, expectant mothers are legally entitled to a generous 14 weeks of maternity leave if they are under 25, or 18 weeks if older; a period which can be extended to 24 weeks. What’s more, they are entitled to full pay at the average monthly wages paid by their employer, which provides a much-needed windfall for lower-paid mothers.

In contrast, Hong Kong women are entitled to just 10 weeks of maternity leave on reduced pay, set at 80 per cent of their normal rate provided they have worked at the company for more than nine months. Otherwise, they get nothing.

3) In 2010, the mainland generated 18 per cent of its electricity from non-polluting renewable sources.

In Hong Kong, the proportion was zero.

4) The Hong Kong government likes to boast about the city’s high standard of education. But according to last year’s educational attainment statistics compiled by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Hong Kong pupils are dunces compared with their Shanghai counterparts.

Pupils in Shanghai get top marks for their mathematical ability, scoring 600 points on the OECD’s standardised ranking. Hong Kong pupils score just 555.

In science, Shanghai gets 575 marks to Hong Kong’s 549, and for reading proficiency Shanghai pupils score 556 marks, while their Hong Kong counterparts get a lowly 533.

So although the Hong Kong government has picked the education sector as a key driver of future economic growth, the city fails its exams compared with Shanghai.

5) The Hong Kong government also likes to brag about the excellence of the city’s “cultural and creative industries”. But of the top 10 most popular Chinese-language films according to the IMDb database, none was a Hong Kong production and only three counted as Hong Kong co-productions, with the city companies very much junior partners. Mainland-produced films dominate the ranking.

6) Finally, the mainland has built and commissioned thousands upon thousands of government buildings in the past few years, with no recorded cases of legionella infestation. The Hong Kong government couldn’t even manage to build itself a disease-free headquarters.

We should hang our heads in shame.

Updated air quality guide would show threat to health from larger Chek Lap Kok

South China Morning Post – 16 Jan 2012

Air quality is a non-negotiable right and, with public health, a matter of urgency, which should always be protected and guaranteed.

Nevertheless, in Hong Kong it falls behind economic concerns and everyone must fend for themselves with masks. Only those who are better off can escape the polluted roadside air in their private cars, instead of waiting for buses.

Supporters of the airport expansion say green groups object to all kinds of infrastructure projects when it comes to the environment and are irrational. However, based on public surveys, people put a lot of trust in green groups. Perhaps this is because of our persistence to work for a single interest: a sustainable (in other words, healthy) environment for all. This stubbornness has resulted in us calling for a simple air quality objective guide upgrade since 1987.

Renewal of the guide would affect the airport expansion plan. The government’s current health standards are described by Professor Anthony Hedley, of the University of Hong Kong, as lax and dangerous. But based on those standards officials would argue that the airport expansion would have insignificant consequences. What if you tighten this standard, which has been delayed for the past 25 years for places like Tung Chung Citygate, the airport itself or other locations? This would actually show that an expanded Chek Lap Kok would cause invisible health hazards like PM2.5 (fine particle concentrations) to get into our lungs.

I doubt if the air quality objective guide will be updated before Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen departs. The third runway is an example of the inconsistency between his rhetoric and his actions. When his first term started seven years ago he said he would not tolerate our first-class city’s poor air.

But what can we expect from chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen? During his term as chief secretary he was tasked with updating the air quality objective guide by the end of 2011, but nothing happened. I don’t want to prejudge. I hope whoever is elected will promptly act in the interest of our health.

First, he must immediately upgrade the guide and set a timetable for its compliance within four years. Second, within this four-year time frame, the new guide should be applied to pending environmental impact assessments, whether it is the airport or other infrastructure projects.

Chu Hon-keung, senior environmental affairs manager, Friends of the Earth (HK)