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January 19th, 2012:

Fuel bills, fares to rise on cleaner air

Hong Kong Standard

Electricity and transport costs will rise by up to 20percent when the new air-quality standards come into force in 2014, the government said.

Kenneth Foo

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Electricity and transport costs will rise by up to 20percent when the new air-quality standards come into force in 2014, the government said.

Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah made the warning a day after announcing plans to raise the Air Quality Objectives to World Health Organization standards.

Yau said the new objectives will lead to a reduction in air pollutants but may also result in a 15 to 20percent rise in transport costs and a 20percent jump in electricity bills, and the public will have to share the financial burden.

The Executive Council on Tuesday gave the green light to tougher clean-air targets for the first time in 25 years, pending approval from the Legislative Council.

About half of the objectives will adopt stricter air-quality guidelines published by the WHO in 2005.

Those for sulfur dioxide, particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and ozone will be set to targets under WHO guidelines.

A total of 22 mitigating measures, including the phasing out of heavily polluting vehicles and the increased usage of natural gas, will be implemented to achieve the new standards.

Yau also welcomed an Airport Authority statement that it will use the updated guidelines when it carries out the environmental impact assessment on the proposed third runway at Chek Lap Kok.

The two electricity companies agreed that government efforts to cut pollution will inevitably lead to higher bills.

CLP Power said yesterday the new objectives, coupled with soaring natural gas prices, will put pressure on it to raise electricity charges.

A spokesman for Hongkong Electric said it will need to install new gas turbines to meet the new standards.

Under the new plan, bus companies have to replace old vehicles with environmentally friendly fleets.

Kowloon Motor Bus, New World First Bus and Citybus said they have already started introducing such vehicles.

But at this early stage they do not know by how much fares will have to rise when the air- quality standards are raised.

CNN Pollution hits Hong Kong health, economy – Business 360 – Blogs.mp4

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What Sherlock Holmes can teach HK about pollution

South China Morning Post – 19 Jan 2012

Modern Hong Kong should learn from literary classics that describe a London perpetually choked by smog to close the chapter on this persistent problem

Anyone who has read much English fiction from the late 19th or early 20th centuries will have come away with a powerful impression of London as a city shrouded in impenetrable, dank gloom.

“In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London,” began Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

The author went on to describe “the greasy, heavy brown swirl … condensing in oily drops upon the window panes”, and how in the streets “the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank”.

The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad’s novel on urban terrorism, owes much of its uneasy atmosphere to recurring descriptions of the yellowish haze which engulfs and obscures London.

Again, in the opening passages of his most famous work, Heart of Darkness, Conrad writes repeatedly of “a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth”.

Seen from the Thames estuary, he describes how “farther west on the upper reaches, the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom”. That depiction should leave the reader in little doubt that the real “heart of darkness” Conrad feared was to be found not up the River Congo but on the River Thames.

For Conan Doyle, Conrad and their contemporaries, describing London as a city sunk in a dank murk was a convenient metaphor for the evil that lurked in the city’s back alleys, and the savagery that endured in the souls of its supposedly civilised inhabitants.

But this depiction was not just a literary device; it was the literal truth.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, London was a city warmed in winter by a million coal fires. In windless conditions, the smoke from those fires would mix with the damp air hanging over the city to create characteristic thick, yellow smogs which, trapped by temperature inversion, would blanket the city for days on end.

These choking “pea soupers” culminated in the great smog of 1952, which is believed to have caused some 4,000 deaths, mostly from respiratory infections.

Hong Kong today suffers from a similarly lethal pollution problem. According to a new study by the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Public Health, our sky-high levels of air pollution now cause an average of 3,200 deaths each year, all easily avoidable.

To put that figure into perspective, it is more than 10 times the number of deaths caused by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003. Indeed, according to HKU, more Hongkongers were killed by pollution last month alone than by Sars during the entire four-month outbreak.

Although Hong Kong’s pollution and its fatal effects are comparable with Britain’s pea soupers, Hong Kong’s official reaction could hardly be more different.

The British government responded to the 1952 deaths by passing the Clean Air Act. This banned coal fires in urban areas, despite stiff opposition from the public, which regarded the new law as an intolerable intrusion of the state into private homes.

It had a marked effect. According to the University of East Anglia, over the next few years the concentrations of smoke particles – sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide – in the air over London fell by 70 per cent.

Never again would the city be plagued by pea soupers. The thousands of deaths they caused became a thing of the past.

Hong Kong’s attempts to tackle pollution have been feeble by comparison.Back in January 2007, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen promised that Hong Kong’s air quality would improve in five years’ time, thanks to his environmental initiatives.

Today even a cursory look at data from the government’s Environmental Protection Department shows that his efforts have been ineffectual. Our pollution has got much, much worse.

For example, in the last quarter of 2006, data from Causeway Bay shows that roadside pollution – the stuff that kills – reached “very high” levels for 140 hours over the three-month period. That is 6 per cent of the time. In the last quarter of 2011, “very high” levels were recorded over 598 hours. This was 27 per cent of the time.

Revising ineffective air quality objectives and introducing half-hearted non-measures like the ban on idling engines won’t save lives.

If Hong Kong is to prevent a whole stadium-full of avoidable deaths over the next decade, the government must now enact – and enforce – legislation as draconian as Britain’s Clean Air Act. A good start would be to ban all diesel-engine buses and trucks from the city’s streets, forcing operators to switch to electric-powered vehicles.

It doesn’t need a Sherlock Holmes to solve this problem. It just takes political will.

China Daily

Li Feng/China Daily

Waste management is a very important issue facing Hong Kong, so perhaps the candidates for the post of Chief Executive should take note. The implications of poorly developed waste management policy will have an enormous impact on the environment and further deteriorate the quality of life for many in the SAR.

A recent example is the plan to construct a controversial super-incinerator on the unspoilt island of Shek Kwu Chau, located off lower Cheung Sha beach on Lantau Island’s picturesque south side. The plans have attracted a very well organized lobby of opponents. Residents are receiving robust support from the Living Islands Movement, a community-based organization whose aims are to promote sustainable development on Hong Kong’s outlying islands.

This most recent plan for the destruction of an area of outstanding natural beauty in the outlying islands is being described as “the most expensive bonfire in the world”. The Living Islands Movement previously thwarted an ill-conceived plan by the government to build a super prison between Sunshine Island and Hei Ling Chau on 114 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea.

After a public review with which many people were dissatisfied due to issues of transparency, the Environmental Impact Assessment sub-committee recently gave its approval for the proposed super-incinerator to proceed. The Environmental Protection Department’s appointed advisers ruled that pristine Shek Kwu Chau and the already spoiled Ash Lagoons near Tsuen Mun were both acceptable locations.

Having opted for the more expensive and most environmentally destructive of the two, the approval enables the Environmental Protection Department to finalize its plans and seek funding from the Legislative Council for the project to proceed.

This action has outraged opponents who are now considering a judicial review. They dismiss the sub-committee’s conclusions that there will not be a significant environmental impact. Opponents are questioning the decision that has been made. The project, estimated to cost an estimated HK$8 billion to HK$13 billion, is designed to process some 3,000 metric tons of municipal rubbish a day, utilizing outmoded technology that will cause extensive damage and increase pollution in the surrounding area.

Interestingly the government’s stated planning intention for the area is conservation and recreation. This does raise questions regarding the decision by the Environmental Protection Department to proceed in a direction that contradicts existing plans, particularly as their name suggests that their overall remit seems pretty clear.

In addition, informed opinion also suggests that this expensive super project fails to adequately address Hong Kong’s solid waste management problems. So what happens next? There is no question that the issue of waste management needs to be addressed and that the existing land-fill sites are having a serious impact on the environment. With capacity over stretched they do not meet Hong Kong’s on-going requirements.

So let’s consider for a moment the root of the problem. It’s probably fair to say that we lag way behind other developed economies in our overall approach to solid waste management and in particular to recycling. Waste is treated as simply that and no regard is given to the long-term consequences or cost of poor waste management. Surely this is a case where policy makers should be leading the way and giving clear directives to all parties concerned.

There appears to be a carelessness that pervades in the territory in relation to our individual responsibilities. For example there are no clear directives regarding recycling at the municipal level. More importantly adequate facilities or incentives do not exist to promote best practice at the household level. As a result Hong Kong is a very difficult place to be environmentally friendly on a daily basis. There is a definite need for an educational process at grassroots level. Government should be addressing these issues as a matter of urgency.

If policy makers look at how waste management is dealt with in countries like Ireland or Singapore for example, they will be aware that there is a mindset that exists within these societies that considers the importance of efficient waste management as an absolute necessity, and of the utmost significance from an environmental standpoint and a fundamental pillar of a developed economy.

The Hong Kong government has just released a public consultation document on applying charges for municipal solid waste, so we can assume that they understand many of the issues and the need for action. But surely they should be taking the responsibility and the lead on this issue and not avoiding taking positive action as many believe to be the case. If it transpires that waste management charges need to be levied, then so be it.

As for Shek Kwu Chau, the Town Planning Board will shortly meet to discuss and possibly approve the necessary re-zoning. Following that, the Legislative Council Finance Committee has to approve the requested budget for the incinerator. It is to be hoped, on this occasion, common sense will prevail and the efforts of those lobbying the government will not be wasted. It would be heartening for all in the city if policy makers can begin the New Year by taking sensible decisions that are vital to our long-term well-being, as the economy continues to battle well in the very turbulent global environment.

Effective waste management affects many aspects of daily life, from overall quality to environmental, healthcare and a range of other issues that reflect Hong Kong’s ability to achieve the coveted aspiration of becoming Asia’s world city. These should not be opportunities lost.

The author is chairman of the Multitude Foundation and director of the Irish Chamber of Commerce.

CTA on Backchat

19 Jan 2012

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Presenters: Hugh Chiverton

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Air Quality Objectives
2012-01-19 HKT 08:30

Air Quality Objectives

The Government has set its Air Quality Objectives (AQOs) which will be implemented in 2014 and subject to review every five years. On today’s Backchat, we’ll be discussing how good the news is.(Mon~Fri 8.30am-9.30am,

A poor disconnect on air quality

South China Morning Post

Edward Yau Tang-wah, our secretary for environment, is fond of saying when discussing air quality objectives that it’s useful to have them as a standard but you must also have effective means for achieving them. You never feel that he really gets it. The thinking behind air quality objectives is that if they are exceeded, public health is damaged. Hong Kong’s objectives are way below World Health Organisation guidelines so the danger to public health from roadside pollution is much greater than indicated by the Environmental Protection Department’s index. But Yau’s approach is to say that we should match the objectives to the measures we are prepared to take to improve the air. His actions indicate he thinks it’s okay to keep the threat to public health at the current dangerously high levels because he and the government are not prepared to take radical measures to quickly improve air quality.

As everyone knows, the dirty engines in buses and trucks cause 80 to 90 per cent of roadside pollution. These old engines need to be taken off the streets – it’s not difficult to achieve. As Civic Exchange pointed out in its report last week, one of the governmental problems is that many years ago the Secretary for Health had oversight over the Air Pollution Control Ordinance and air quality objectives, and could speak with a much stronger voice to the Legislative Council on the dangers to public health of bad air. This disconnect is poor government.

Clearly lagging

South China Morning Post – Jan 19, 2012

Mike Kilburn fears air pollution in Hong Kong could get even worse, given the latest evidence that clean-up measures are proving ineffective and officials are failing in their duty to protect public health

This month marks a major watershed for air quality in Hong Kong. At the beginning of the month, the Environmental Protection Department said that roadside pollution last year was the worst on record. At the same time, Clean Air Network presented a table from the China Statistical Yearbook 2011 ranking Hong Kong’s nitrogen dioxide levels (a key indicator of roadside pollution) 31st out of 32 major cities in China – only Urumqi was worse. This is especially embarrassing considering that Hong Kong has a service-based economy with very little industry – and correspondingly fewer sources of pollution than any other city on the list.

Adding insult to injury, the mainland pre-empted the long-delayed release of Hong Kong’s air quality objectives by announcing its own. This was embarrassing for Hong Kong officials who, by dithering for two years since consulting the public on a set of draft objectives, have forfeited Hong Kong’s position as the pacesetter for introducing tougher air quality standards in China. The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s air quality objectives are very similar to those proposed by Hong Kong, but they differ in three important aspects.

First, the ministry has proposed an additional 24-hour limit for nitrogen dioxide of 80 micrograms per cubic metre that is not included in Hong Kong’s objectives. This means the mainland’s standards for this key pollutant are even tougher than Hong Kong’s.

Second, by publishing a set of targets that most, if not all, major cities will take years to achieve, the ministry has signalled its understanding of the powerful role targets can play in driving down pollution – something our officials have yet to grasp. In a radio interview broadcast last year, Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah insisted that “apart from setting a target, you have to have a way to achieve it”.

As mainland leaders have shown, the target can certainly precede the plan for attainment, and two years were lost while Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s administration tried to figure out how to meet the air quality objectives it proposed in 2009.

Third, even though concentrations of respirable suspended particles of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5) in many mainland cities are more than double those in Hong Kong, the ministry has set the standard for PM2.5 at the same level as Hong Kong’s – 35 micrograms. As with the target for nitrogen dioxide, this sends a strong message that protecting public health has been accorded a high priority by Beijing.

Conversely, in a May 2011 meeting of the Legislative Council, frustrated lawmakers suggested that the government had not released the new air quality objectives because it feared that major infrastructure projects may fail to meet the new standard. In his response, Tsang appeared to confirm this view: “We must carefully assess the economic and social impacts of any new air quality objectives on Hong Kong. It is only by doing so that we can put forward any long-term and firmly established air quality objectives that are appropriate to all works projects and economic development.”

But there is clear evidence that Hong Kong’s poor air quality is now threatening economic health as well as the well-being of the public. Last September, the Airport Authority released a report expressing concern that high nitrogen dioxide emissions from aircraft using a third runway would create difficulties in securing approvals under the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, and could not legally go ahead.

In a similar vein, it was concerns about the health impacts of added traffic on the proposed bridge to Macau and Zhuhai that provoked a judicial review that held up the project.

This week, the government acted. On Tuesday, Yau announced that new air quality objectives for Hong Kong had been approved by the Executive Council and would become law in 2014. These are identical to the objectives put out for public consultation in 2009, raising serious questions about what has been achieved by the two-year delay.

The government’s press release also included a rather cryptic statement referring to new infrastructure projects, saying that “all government projects for which environmental impact assessment studies have not yet commenced would endeavour to adopt the proposed new air quality objectives as the benchmark”.

Environmental assessments follow a statutory process that permits approval of projects if their emissions do not exceed the current air standards. The ordinance makes no allowance to “endeavour” to adopt a new standard, and the director of environmental protection would very swiftly find herself back in court were she to require proponents to meet air quality objectives that were yet to be legally adopted. Hence, regrettably, those fine-sounding words are essentially hollow.

Meanwhile, the need to address air pollution grows more urgent. The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health and Civic Exchange have launched a revised version of the Hedley Environmental Index. The refined calculations of health impacts indicate that an average of 3,200 premature deaths have occurred each year over the past five years, up from the previous estimate of 1,000 deaths per year.

So what can we conclude? In short, our air quality can get worse, and officials are fudging the issue rather than making it better. The clean-up measures introduced to reduce pollution are failing in key areas – especially at the roadside. The consequences for our health are far worse than we imagined.

The officials whose job it is to improve air quality do not understand the key tools of their trade, and appear more concerned with perpetuating development than protecting public health. It is hardly surprising that Hong Kong has lost its position as the environmental leader in China.

Mike Kilburn is head of environmental strategy for public policy think tank Civic Exchange

Challenge leaves us all out of breath

South China Morning Post – 19 Jan 2012

New emissions targets set for 2014 allow 18 days of levels above the maximum for nitrogen dioxide; the figure for last year was 241 days, shock study shows

The immensity of the challenge facing environmental officials responsible for cleaning the city’s air has been exposed by a study which has matched their latest targets with last year’s air quality figures.

The worst discrepancy is for nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant generated mainly by vehicles.

The targets for 2014 announced by the Environment Bureau on Tuesday, which are not legally enforceable, allow only 18 days of levels exceeding the maximum for this pollutant.

But if last year’s emissions are repeated, the levels will be in excess for 241 days of the year. Concentrations of respirable particulate matter at least 10 microns wide, or PM10, would exceed the limit by 35 days, but the proposed target is only nine days.

The figures, compiled by the University of Hong Kong’s school of public health for the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583announcementsnews) , came a day after the bureau said it would toughen the city’s air quality objectives in 2014.

The new objectives, updating targets formulated in 1987, lay down limits for seven pollutants that are between 10 per cent and 64 per cent more stringent than existing ones.

Critics have slammed officials for the delay in adopting the new objectives and aiming low, as targets for four of the seven pollutants – sulphur dioxide, PM10, PM2.5 and ozone – would be based only on the World Health Organisation’s interim, rather than ultimate, targets.

But officials said targets needed to be practical, as regional pollution – from sources outside Hong Kong’s borders – was beyond its control.

Dr Lai Hak-kan from the University of Hong Kong, who applied the 2011 figures to 2014’s standards, said the WHO suggested no allowances be made at all for most pollutants.

The exception was a three-day allowance for particulate matter, as these levels could be increased by typhoons and dust storms. But Lai said: “Our government sets an even higher nine days for particulate matter, PM10 and PM2.5 [the finest category of particulates, at 2.5 microns].

“Nine days of heavy pollution can cost many lives, especially for people with chronic illnesses. An even bigger problem is that no matter how many days the pollution goes over the limit, the government will, like in the past, face no legal consequences.”

Although the new targets will become statutory requirements after amendments to the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, there will be few legal consequences of a breach, except for infrastructure or construction projects.

When applying for a government work permit for such projects, the owners will have to ensure their works do not worsen the air quality by more than the legal limits.

According to the Clean Air Network, US citizens can take out a civil action against the Environmental Protection Agency if air quality standards are not satisfactory.

And the European Union can withhold funds from regional development projects if there is a breach of air quality standards. But Helen Choy Shuk-yi, general manager of Clean Air Network, said: “The air quality objectives will be meaningless if officials can’t tell us how legally binding they are. Will infrastructure works have to stop if the objectives are not met? Officials are only diverting our attention when they give us those figures.”

A spokeswoman for the Environment Bureau did not respond when asked about any consequences for a breach of the tougher standards.

Secretary for Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said yesterday that the government would continue to implement the 22 measures identified to improve air quality.

But he reiterated that those measures would come with a cost. “We will have to share the costs,” he said. “By reducing emissions from power plants and making them switch to [natural gas], there may be a 20 per cent increase in electricity tariffs.”

By phasing out old buses with dirty engines, transport fees could rise by 15 to 20 per cent, he added.

Thomas Choi Ka-man, senior environmental officer from Friends of the Earth, criticised the secretary for highlighting just the costs and not the benefits to public health.