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December, 2016:

City faces more extreme weather events

Can you handle the heat? Hong Kong Observatory director forecasts more extreme weather after record-breaking years

The city saw the warmest year on record, but also the coldest day in six decades in 2016

The Hong Kong Observatory will consider extending its forecasts following a record number of extreme weather events in recent years and predictions of more harsh conditions to come.

Speaking on radio on Saturday, observatory director Shun Chi-ming said the number of extreme weather events in Hong Kong had clearly increased over the last two years when compared to the past 130 years of archival records.

Hong Kong saw 30 record-breaking weather events in 2015 and 2016 alone.

“We will be facing more such weather in the future,” Shun warned, attributing the harsh conditions to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the world’s atmosphere.

Last January Hong Kong saw the coldest day in six decades and temperatures dipped below zero in some areas.

In the end, however, 2016 was the city’s warmest year on record. In June, temperatures hit 35 degrees Celsius for four consecutive days, the longest hot streak ever – one day longer than the previous record of three days.

While the same cold conditions weren’t expected for this January, Shun said changes in weather conditions will be more amplified in coming years.

He urged Hongkongers not to take risks during extreme weather events, such as chasing typhoons or climbing the city’s highest peak in an attempt to see snow.

The director also questioned whether Hongkongers were even prepared to deal with increasingly severe weather conditions, and urged the government to support disadvantaged residents who may not have air conditioning.

“Hongkongers have been accustomed to a very comfortable indoor environment…Are they really capable of dealing with extreme weather conditions outdoors?” he said.

To help people to better prepare for more frequent weather events, the observatory will consider extending its forecasts from nine days to two weeks, the director added.

“We already have statistics covering weeks ahead,” Shun said, adding that extended forecasts were already available on various websites.

Shun said it would be ideal if observatory officers could provide scientific analysis with the release of extended forecasts to prevent unnecessary rumours, false or inaccurate readings.

Sharp improvement in Hong Kong’s bad air days attributed to wild weather

Heavy downpours in January and October, usually two of the worst months, help to disperse pollutants

Hong Kong breathed a little easier this year as the number of hours of air pollution reaching “high health risk” and beyond fell by half the recent average.

But much of the decline was due to wetter, windier weather in what are traditionally two of the most polluted months, January and October, according to a study by an environmental group.

Hongkongers were exposed to 1,480 hours of air of high health risk this year, meaning “7” or above on the government’s 11-tier Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), when children, the elderly and those with heart or respiratory illnesses are advised to avoid physical exertion outside and areas with heavy traffic.

About 3,559 hours were logged last year and 4,110 hours in 2014. The yearly average from 2014 to December 20 this year was 3,050 hours. There were also fewer days with high-risk air – 65 compared with 96 in 2014 and 79 in 2015.

Green Power analysed data from the Environmental Protection Department’s 13 general air quality monitoring stations and found “major decreases” in hours of high health risk air in the city’s most polluted towns, including Tuen Mun, Kwai Chung, Yuen Long, Kwun Tong and Tung Chung.

Dr Cheng Luk-ki, head of scientific research and conservation, said the worst months for pollution were usually August to October in the autumn seasonal transition as well as January. “This year the biggest drops whether in hours or days were recorded in October and January.”

Abnormal weather may have been a major factor.

Around 266mm of rain fell in January, 10 times the average of 25mm, according to the Observatory, possibly helping in the dispersal of pollutants. Hong Kong was also affected by five tropical cyclones in October, which brought windier and wetter weather. Rainfall was six times higher than the October average.

Wang Tao, chair professor of atmospheric environment at Polytechnic University – who was not involved in the analysis – said weather and climate changes affected statistical metrics and definitely had a role to play in the drop, as there had been no major reduction in emissions.

A department spokesman cited “efforts to improve air quality in recent years” including the gradual phasing-out of old diesel commercial vehicles, exhaust emissions controls and new laws requiring ships at berth to switch to low-sulphur fuel as playing a role.

But Cheng stressed that air pollution remained stubbornly high in areas such as Tuen Mun, Tung Chung and Yuen Long, all of which had more than 40 days of high-risk air this year, often with ozone or roadside nitrogen oxide concentrations exceeding World Health Organisation safety levels.

“With 65 days of high health risk air, one in every six days is a high health risk. We think this is still considered a serious issue,” said Cheng.

The AQHI, which replaced the Air Pollution Index in 2013, categorises “1” as the lowest risk and a “10+” as the most serious.

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The Search Is on for Pulling Carbon from the Air

Scientists are investigating a range of technologies they hope can capture lots of carbon without a lot of cost

Nations worldwide have agreed to limit carbon dioxide emissions in hopes of preventing global warming from surpassing 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. But countries will not manage to meet their goals at the rate they’re going. To limit warming, nations will also likely need to physically remove carbon from the atmosphere. And to do that, they will have to deploy “negative emissions technology”—techniques that scrub CO2 out of the air.

Can these techniques, such as covering farmland with crushed silica, work? Researchers acknowledge that they have yet to invent a truly cost-effective, scalable and sustainable technology that can remove the needed amount of carbon dioxide, but they maintain that the world should continue to look into the options. “Negative emissions technologies are coming into play because the math [on climate change] is so intense and unforgiving,” Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at Stanford University. Last week at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, researchers presented several intriguing negative emissions strategies, as well as the drawbacks.

Enhanced Weathering with Agriculture

Earth’s surface naturally removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the chemical breakdown of rocks, but the phenomenon occurs extremely slowly. Scientists have proposed speeding up this process—which is called “weathering”—with man-made intervention. At the AGU conference, David Beerling, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation, explained an agricultural technique that could quicken weathering and theoretically benefit crops as well.

In this method, farmers would apply finely crushed silicate rocks to their land. The roots of crops and fungus in the soil would accelerate the chemical and physical breakdown of the silicate rocks, and at the same time, carbon dioxide would be pulled from the air into the soil due to a chemical reaction that occurs as part of the weathering process. Grinding the silicate rocks into the size of pellets or sand grains would speed up natural weathering because it increases the amount of rock surface area available to react.

In addition to capturing carbon dioxide, the weathered rocks would release valuable nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium into the soil, which would help crops grow. The rocks would provide plants with silica as well, which Beerling says could help them build stronger cells to better fend off pests. “You could reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, which would reduce the cost to the farmers as well,” he explains. The enhanced weathering may also help with ocean acidification, according to Beerling.

Some of the carbon dioxide that’s captured would stay in the soil, but much of it would get flushed into the ocean as a compound called bicarbonate. Bicarbonate is basic, which means it could potentially balance out the increasingly acidic oceans.

This technique has major drawbacks, though. Researchers are skeptical of the method because it would cost a lot to grind and transport rocks, and both those steps would require a lot of energy, which could create more emissions. There are also possible impacts on the ecosystem to consider. “I’m concerned about [environmental] disturbance,” says Rob Jackson, professor of earth sciences at Stanford. “This would essentially be a massive mining operation.” Jackson does like the potential benefits, though—like fertilizing soils—in addition to removing carbon dioxide.

Carbon Capture with Ocean Thermal Energy

A different negative emissions technique would take advantage of the ocean’s vast temperature differences: ocean thermal energy conversion. In this approach, cold water is pumped from the ocean’s depth up to the warmer surface, and the temperature difference is used to generate electricity. Researchers have already demonstrated the technique on a small scale. Now Greg Rau at the University of California at Santa Cruz wants to combine it alongside a chemical reaction that would suck carbon dioxide from the air at the ocean’s surface and also generate hydrogen at the same time. The reaction would be helpful in several ways: it would capture CO2, and convert the thermal-generated electricity to an energy form—hydrogen—that could be transported by tanker to land from offshore. And like the enhanced weathering method, this approach would turn CO2 into bicarbonate that would sit down into the ocean, helping to counteract acidification. Rau has also proposed modifying the ocean thermal energy system to avoid any CO2 release that could happen when deep ocean water is pumped to the surface.

So far, Rau has only demonstrated his process in the lab. “His idea is very much in the conceptual stages,” says Chris Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford. “It has the potential to be something, but it’s still very much a niche solution at this point.”

Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage

One of the most developed negative emissions technologies is known as bio-energy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS. The process entails growing trees and plants such as switchgrass that suck up carbon dioxide as they grow, burning them for energy in power plants, and then capturing and storing the carbon dioxide released during the burning. The capture and storage would be done by putting a filter in the smokestack, compressing the CO2, and then injecting it underground. BECCS generates energy and removes carbon from the air, which sounds appealing.

But scientists say BECCS would take up a massive amount of land. According to one estimate, BECCS would require about a third of the world’s arable land in order to capture enough carbon dioxide to keep the temperature from rising above two degrees. “I’m skeptical you can ever reach the necessary scale, because you’d need a huge amount of land to keep up with human emissions, and in a world where you have to feed more people than ever before,” says Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University. Plus, some are concerned that BECCS isn’t as effective as it appears—they say that if factors like land-use changes that result from the process are counted, BECCS may not reduce emissions as much as people think. For instance, if people cut down a tropical rainforest to burn its wood for BECCS, they would ultimately create more emissions—at least in the short-term. Or if BECCS takes over land previously used for purposes like agriculture, it could push people to deforest other land for their needs. Also, storing the carbon created by burning biomass requires a lot of energy, which costs money and can generate more emissions.

There are other negative emissions strategies as well—major ones that have gotten a lot of attention, such as directly capturing CO2 from the air with large panels coated with chemicals, and restoring forests so more trees can absorb more CO2. Lesser known ideas are out there, too, such as using wood to build homes and offices so that carbon dioxide is locked away in the walls of buildings. Yet none of the technologies so far have proven to be viable and cost-effective on the scale that’s needed.

Experts say more money and research should go into investigating a broad range of technologies and determining the best options—and they say the work needs to start happening now. In Chris Field’s AGU lecture, he said that if the world wants to use negative emissions technologies to significantly draw down carbon emissions by the latter part of this century, they need to start being deployed as early as 2020 or 2030. “All the negative emissions technologies, except for growing forests, are in the very early stages of development,” explains Field. “If these technologies are going to make a difference, they’re going to have to go from essentially nothing now to a massive scale in decades.”

Hong Kong’s first integrated recycling plant for e-waste part of plans to make polluters pay

Operator looks to increase city’s recovery rate for electronic waste to at least 80 per cent as government implements “polluter pays” laws

The operator of Hong Kong’s first integrated recycling plant for electronics is hoping to increase the local recovery rate of such waste materials once its new facility and collection network become fully operational “on time and on budget” next year.

Packed into yellow steel cages, stacked two storeys high in a Sheung Shui warehouse are 200 tonnes of old bulky television sets, inkjet printers, scanners and refrigerators that the government contractor has been collecting since July. It will reach full capacity at 600.

The junk will be trucked off to the government’s first integrated treatment and recycling facility when it opens in the middle of next year at the Tuen Mun EcoPark – one of several measures to accommodate the government’s new “polluter pays” laws on certain types of electronic waste.

The producer responsibility scheme will include televisions, fridges, washing machines, computer products and air-conditioning units.

Passed in the legislature in March, once in effect, importers or distributors of the appliances will have to pay to help fund collection and disposal of waste electrical goods.

“In Europe, recycling is something expected, but in Hong Kong we’re still learning,” said ALBA IWS director Nigel Mattravers, the government contractor tasked with building and operating the facility and network.

The contractor is building five regional collection centres, including the one in Sheung Shui, to sort, store and record the e-waste, and eight satellite centres for collection only. Apart from helping businesses or NGOs conduct “take-back” services, the public can also drop e-waste off directly at the collection centres.

About 70,000 tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment is disposed of in the city each year, 80 per cent of which is shipped off to regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia, while the rest is handled locally and dumped in a landfill.

The new facility will be able to handle 30,000 tonnes per year but the operator claims it will be able to increase capacity by extending operating hours if necessary.

“Much of this material is handled very badly across the world. At this facility we will recover all the hazardous materials from these appliances and make sure they are properly disposed of … and processed in a safe and environmentally sound fashion,” Mattravers said.

The products will be detoxified, dismantled and turned into secondary raw material such as plastics, alumina, copper or iron, which can be reused for manufacture or landfilled locally “in a clean manner”.

Mattravers said the target was to increase the local recovery rate to at least 80 per cent.

The Environmental Protection Department said reliance on exports to manage e-waste was not sustainable in the long run because demand for second-hand products overseas would decline over time.

Harmful materials found in e-waste, if not properly treated or disposed of, can harm the environment and human health.

ALBA IWS logistics manager Lawrence Cheung said the operator would have strict guidelines on waste collection such as by collecting only from a registered retailer or licensed recycler to avoid collecting illegally imported e-waste.

A two-year investigation by environmental group ¬Basel Action Network last year found Hong Kong to be a dumping ground for unwanted e-waste from the United States, in violation of the Basel Convention, which bars importation of hazardous waste.
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Sneak peek at Hong Kong’s first new railway line in a decade

MTR opens doors to stations along new South Island Line ahead of next week’s launch

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers flocked to brand new MTR stations on Saturday for a sneak peek at the city’s first new railway line in more than a decade.

Train services were not running ahead of the official opening of the long-awaited South Island Line next Wednesday, but the MTR Corporation invited the public to inspect its four new stations in Southern District and the extended interchange at Admiralty that will link it to the rest of the city’s railway network. Some 28,000 people responded to the invitation.

The HK$16.5 billion line, the first to open since the Disneyland Resort Line in 2005, will feature driverless three-carriage trains and run from South Horizons in Ap Lei Chau to Admiralty via new ­stations at Lei Tung, Wong Chuk Hang and Ocean Park.

Other new additions are the Kwun Tong Line extension to Ho Man Tin and Whampoa, which opened in October, and the extension of the Island Line from Sheung Wan to Sai Ying Pun, the University of Hong Kong and Kennedy Town in 2014.

Excited residents and railway buffs could be seen thronging the platforms at Wong Chuk Hang and Ocean Park MTR stations for souvenir photos of the new driverless trains passing through during testing.

Among them was 53-year-old teacher Edmund Wud Tai-ming, who noted some the bare-bones design work at Wong Chuk Hang station.

“This station is simple and looks primitive, but us Hong Kong people, we like efficiency and if it does the job, great,” he said.

“It is very convenient for us to travel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. In the past we suffered from the traffic in the tunnel so we didn’t know when we would arrive at our destination but now we will have more control of our time.”

He added that he usually spent around 70 minutes travelling to and from Wong Chuk Hang into Central and Kowloon.

Sam Chan Siu-lim, 59, described Wong Chuk Hang station as “fresh” but “small”. The South Island Line would transform his life, he said, after waking up at 5.30 am daily to go to work while avoiding the traffic jams and crowds between Aberdeen and Central.

Asked whether the rail operator was ready for the opening on December 28, Francis Li Shing-kee, the MTR’s operating head , said it had been going smoothly since trial operations began on October 1.

“We haven’t found any big issues and we have managed well,” he said. “We will do our best and try to identify as many [problems] as possible. At the moment, we are ready for the train service [to start].”

The new line is ­expected to serve 170,000 people a day.

The fare for the four-minute journey from Admiralty to Ocean Park will be HK$5.30, while that for the 11-minute trip to South Horizons will be HK$6.70.

China’s Smog Is as Deadly as Smoking, New Research Claims

Current severe smog in northern China is affecting nearly half a billion people

Air pollution could be the cause of 1 in 3 deaths in China, new academic research suggests, making everyday life about as deadly as smoking cigarettes in some parts of the country.

According to the South China Morning Post, a recent study of 74 cities analyzed some 3.03 million deaths recorded in 2013, and found that 31.8% of them could be linked to smog.

The study, carried out by researchers at China’s Nanjing University, found that the air was most toxic in the cities of Baoding, Shijiazhuang and Handan, each reporting more than 30,000 deaths in 2013 that could be linked to pollution.

It does not appear that the situation has markedly improved in the years since. Last Friday, Beijing issued a “red alert” warning because of a blanket of thick smog shrouding the capital city and a large swath of northern China, affecting nearly half a billion people. With pollution levels reaching about 500 PM2.5 particles per cubic meter — the WHO ranks safe levels as under 25 — the so-called airpocalypse, has sent tens of thousands fleeing to southern parts of the country, where the air is cleaner.

Hospitals have been crowded with patients suffering respiratory problems, whole highways have been shut down, and hundreds of flights grounded. Classes were also cancelled — although in one case exams were not. Shocking images spread across the Internet showing schoolchildren seated outside wearing jackets and face masks, huddled over desks to take a test in gray, toxic gloom.

The Post reports that the new findings from Nanjing support previous research; the paper says that the International Energy Agency published a report in June claiming that air pollution has trimmed some 25% off life expectancy in China, while a study co-authored by researchers at three renowned universities determined that people in China’s north could lose an average of 5.5 years of life due to smog.

China’s National Energy Administration reportedly said Wednesday that it will enact measures such as limiting high-pollution fuel emissions and launching a satellite carbon-dioxide monitor to mitigate the problem, but many in the country’s vast ultra-industrial cities remain skeptical.

Greenpeace has warned that the economy must urgently be made less dependent on polluting forms of energy and that people living in cold northern climates should be given alternatives to coal, which causes much of the smog.

Shanghai water supply hit by 100-tonne wave of garbage

Ships are suspected of dumping waste upstream on China’s Yangtze river before it floats into a key city reservoir

Medical waste, broken bottles and household trash are some of the items found in more than 100 tonnes of garbage salvaged near a drinking water reservoir in Shanghai.

The suspected culprits are two ships that have been dumping waste upstream in the Yangtze river. It has then flowed downstream to the reservoir on Shanghai’s Chongming island which is also home to 700,000 people.

The reservoir at the mouth of the river is one of the four main sources of drinking water for the country’s largest city, according to local media.

China has struggled with air, soil and water pollution for years during its economic boom, with officials often protecting industry and silencing citizens that complain. China’s cities are often blanketed in toxic smog, while earlier this year more than 80% of water wells used by farms, factories and rural households was found to be unsafe for drinking because of pollution.

Officials dispatched more than 40 workers to clean up the mess, but the area around the reservoir will take about two weeks to clear, the Shanghai Daily reported. Shanghai’s water authority claims supplies are still safe to drink, but has stopped the flow coming in while it continues testing, the paper said.

Videos circulating on social media showed beaches and wetlands covered in a rainbow of plastic bags.

“There’s enough trash to cover several football fields,” a local resident can be heard saying in one video. Catheter bags and used IV sacks are pulled from the water, and in some places only a sea of trash can be seen, completely obscuring the river water.

“This is so sad, just humanity digging its own grave,” one commenter on Twitter-like Sina Weibo said.

Needles and medical tubes were found in the trash, which has been washing ashore since 5 November. Despite cleanup efforts, a new wave of garbage inundated the island again this week.

Earlier this year more than 500 students developed nosebleeds, rashes and illnesses, some as severe as leukaemia, in what local media linked to illegal toxic dumping by chemical factories.

Although parents complained for months, local officials ignored their claims and disputed any connection despite levels of chlorobenzene, a highly toxic solvent that causes damage to the liver, kidney and nervous system, nearly 100,000 times above the safe limit.

The country’s air pollution has been shown to contribute to more than 1 million deaths a year, linked to about a third of deaths in China’s major cities.

Average Hongkonger sent 1.39kg per day of solid waste to landfills, up 3pc on last year

Authorities attribute surge to more commercial and industrial waste being dumped in wake of ‘relatively buoyant local economy’

The average Hongkonger sent 1.39kg of municipal solid waste into landfills per day last year, marking a 3 per cent rise from the year before and the highest level in 10 years, though notable reductions in food and special waste were recorded, new official data revealed.

The Environmental Protection Department attributed the increase to more commercial and industrial waste being dumped, which in turn was partly attributable to a “relatively buoyant local economy” last year.

The average volume of municipal solid waste sent to the tips in 2014 was 1.35kg per capita per day.

Recycling rates for municipal solid waste also fell – from 37 per cent in 2014 to 35 per cent last year – driven by significant declines in recovery rates for waste paper and plastics, which fell by 52,000 and 5,000 tonnes respectively.

Every day last year, the city disposed of some 2,257 tonnes of waste paper and 2,183 tonnes of waste plastic in landfills – 17.5 and 8.3 per cent more than the previous year.

The two categories each account for about one fifth of the municipal solid waste mix.

Meanwhile, the volume of plastic PET bottles (made of polyethylene terephthalate) disposed of alone grew 3 per cent last year as recycling rates nearly slumped in half from 14 per cent to just 7.6 per cent.

The low waste recovery rates were blamed on a dismal international market for recyclables in the past few years, resulting in a “dampening effect” on demand as well as on the prices of local recyclables.

However, the amount of landfilled food waste – comprising one third of municipal waste – saw a surprise retreat of 7.1 per cent last year to 3,382 tonnes, or about 0.46kg per person daily. The change was largely driven by households’ kitchen waste.

The department claimed the drop could “well be a result of efforts made by many sectors of the community” in response to various government initiatives intended to “nurture a culture of reducing food waste at source and to donate surplus food to the needy”.

Environmental group The Green Earth said the sustained high disposal rates stemmed from a variety of factors: a lack of volume-based waste charging, the delayed commissioning of an organic waste treatment facility for food waste, and a downturn in the recycling trade.

It urged the government to speed up legislation for municipal solid waste-charging to curb the growth of industrial and commercial waste. It also advocated implementing more producer responsibility laws and regulations for items such as plastic bottles and beverage containers.

A department spokesman said it would continue to “vigorously implement policies on waste avoidance and reduction, including municipal solid waste charging and producer responsibility schemes”.

It is understood the Environment Bureau hopes to prepare corresponding legislative proposals within the current legislative term.

Of the 5.5 million tonnes of solid waste discarded last year, two-thirds, or 3.7 million tonnes, was municipal solid waste: that is, rubbish generated domestically from homes, and commercial or industrial activities. Most of it comprised food, paper and plastics.

The remaining 1.8 million tonnes primarily consisted of waste from the construction sector, or special waste, which includes livestock, radioactive, grease trap waste and sewage sludge.

The amount of special waste discarded in landfills fell by 34.5 per cent last year due to the commissioning of a new treatment facility in Tuen Mun, which incinerates sewage sludge into residue and ash.
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World’s Worst Air Has Mongolians Seeing Red, Planning Action

If you think air pollution in China has been bad, just look at Mongolia.

Levels of particulate matter in the air have risen to almost 80 times the recommended safety level set by the World Health Organization — and five times worse than Beijing during the past week’s bout with the worst smog of the year.

Mongolian power plants working overtime during the frigid winter belch plumes of soot into the atmosphere, while acrid smoke from coal fires shrouds the shantytowns of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in a brown fog. Angry residents planned a protest, organized on social media, on Dec. 26.

The level of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, in the air as measured hourly peaked at 1,985 micrograms a cubic meter on Dec. 16 in the capital’s Bayankhoshuu district, according to data posted by government website The daily average settled at 1,071 micrograms that day.

The World Health Organization recommends PM2.5 exposure of no more than 25 micrograms over 24 hours.


In Beijing, the year’s worst bout of noxious smog prompted officials to issue the year’s first red alert and order 1,200 factories to close or cut output. Earlier this week, PM2.5 levels exceeded 400 in the capital, and Chinese officials on Tuesday canceled 351 flight departures because of limited visibility. The highest daily average in the past week, on Wednesday, registered 378. Worse, the PM2.5 reading in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei, exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter earlier this week, according to the China National Environment Monitoring Center.

Mongolia’s contracting economic growth and a widening budget gap have left authorities few resources to fight the dangerous smog.

Tariff Eliminated

After first cutting the nighttime electricity tariff by 50 percent to encourage residents to heat their homes with electric heaters instead of raw coal or other flammable material that is often toxic, Prime Minister Erdenebat Jargaltulga announced Friday that the tariff would eliminated entirely as of Jan. 1. Longer term, he proposed building apartments to replace makeshift housing using a loan from China, doing more to encourage electric heating, and reducing poverty to slow migration to the capital, according to a government statement.

The conversion of ger districts, where hundreds of thousands of people live in makeshift homes including tents, into apartment complexes has so far been stymied by an economic crisis that has pushed the government to seek economic lifelines from partners including the International Monetary Fund and China.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Bat-Erdene Badmaanyambuu announced that a 50-bed wing of Ulaanbaatar’s military hospital will open up for children with pneumonia, as city hospitals were filled to capacity, according to a statement on the government’s website.

Public Anger

Public anger over the government’s handling of pollution has been growing on social media, where residents share pictures of the smog, encourage methods of protection and call on the government to do more to protect citizens. The latest trend Friday had Mongolians changing their profile pictures on Facebook to show themselves wearing air pollution masks.

The air pollution protest next week was being organized for Sukhbaatar Square, the capital’s central plaza. A crowdfunding campaign to purchase 100 air purifiers for hospitals and schools raised more than $1,400 in five days.

“The hospital I visited today did not have any air purifiers, even though 40 mothers were scattered along a narrow corridor, each with a sick baby in their arms,” Onon Bayasgalan, an environmentalist who organized the crowdfunding campaign, said Thursday. “They sleep on fold out cots in the corridors, as the hospital rooms are full of pneumonia cases.’’

Impending Crisis

Earlier this month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned of an impending crisis if the smoke levels are not reduced, calling children under 5 and those still in the womb the most vulnerable.

“Children are projected to suffer from unprecedented levels of chronic respiratory disease later in life,” the UNICEF report said, warning of the rising economic costs of these diseases unless “major new measures” are urgently enacted. “The alarming levels of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar during the long winter cannot be neglected any longer, as their short- and long-term negative health impact has been demonstrated, especially for children.’’

A 2013 study by Canada’s Simon Fraser University concluded that 10 percent of deaths in Ulaanbaatar were related to complications from air pollution.

“Most of my colleagues’ children are hospitalized or at home struggling with respiratory problems,’’ Lhagva Erdene, news director at Mongol TV station, said in an e-mail. “We feel helpless and frustrated for the inaction of our government.’’

Neither the ministers for foreign affairs nor the environment replied to requests for comment.

Byambasaikhan Bayanjargal, who heads the Business Council of Mongolia in the capital, said he and his family try to stay indoors as much as possible and spend weekends outside the city.

“There have been shifting policies, and that is frustrating,” he said. “There needs to be consistent policy and stability so businesses can find solutions to this problem.’’

Friday’s PM2.5 levels in northern Ulaanbaatar peaked at 932 at noon, while the monthly average for December so far was 518. Meanwhile in Beijing, where the government lifted its pollution warning Thursday, skies were clear and air quality improved.

Development Bureau forum on 2030 Plus vision leaves public none the wiser

I attended the Development Bureau’s second “public engagement” forum on December 18 on its “Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030” ( or “2030 Plus”).

I can attest that the public was not engaged, but patronised and stonewalled by the five government officials there, aided by a biased moderator.

A Planning Department official consumed a quarter of the allotted time with a 2030 Plus presentation full of graphics and feel-good buzzwords like “smart, green, resilient city”, and “urban-rural-nature integration”.

In concrete terms, these jaunty concepts boiled down to creating 1,200 hectares of land for two new towns, New Territories North and East Lantau Metropolis, involving large-scale reclamation, extremely high costs, razing villages and displacing their inhabitants.

Understandably concerned, many in the audience sought specific answers during question time. They submitted their names to a lottery and, if drawn by the moderator, were permitted to speak.

He drew 10 to 15 names at a time and grouped all their questions in one batch for officials to address. This ploy allowed officials to gloss over or simply not respond to many questions.

I would like to look at a few of the questions they didn’t answer.

What is the government’s cost estimate for the East Lantau Metropolis? Comprising 1,000 reclaimed hectares around two islands east of Lantau, this vast new city is likely to cost over HK$400 billion. Its feasibility study alone costs HK$248 million [1], the costliest such study in the history of our infrastructure.

Why won’t the government release the five consultancy studies on the metropolis and Lantau? Why won’t it even disclose a 20-year-old cost estimate for a tunnel connecting Hong Kong Island to one of the two islands? This estimate is in a government study for a 1990s plan to build a new town on reclaimed land around Green Island; a similar tunnel is likely to be built for the metropolis.

Why can’t the government acquire the land from brownfield sites, developers’ land banks, and the 900 hectares reserved under the small-house policy?

Or why not terminate the lease of 163 hectares to the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling and use the land for public housing?

A director of developer Hopewell said Hong Kong needed the golf course as Asia’s world city. Mindful perhaps that some audience members may live in subdivided flats, even the five officials remained silent on that score.

Of the 30 audience members who spoke, 26 spoke against the government’s plans.

Chai Kim-wah, Lantau
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