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A Clear Vision

SCMP – Jun 25, 2009

Hong Kong has better visibility during the summer because prevailing winds blow pollution away. Unfortunately, the thick smog will return later and much of the Pearl River Delta will be enveloped by the ugly yellow-brown haze once more.

With Hong Kong investment, the delta became one of the world’s busiest industrial hubs, so it should come as no surprise that air pollution has risen substantially over the past two decades. The task now is to clean it up quickly to protect the health of some 50 million people.

The loss of blue sky in the region has much to do with two pollutants – particulates and ozone. Particulates are derived from the burning of fossil fuels by vehicles, and in industrial processes and power generation; ozone is formed when other pollutants react in the presence of sunlight.

Complex chemical reactions are involved, which makes these two pollutants among the hardest to control.

We are not alone in facing this problem. Many cities and regions around the world are struggling to find solutions, too. It is therefore important to understand the specific regional conditions for us to devise directly relevant solutions. Moreover, the types and mix of pollutants change constantly as the industrial profile of the region alters.

For example, the change in the region’s fuel mix and quality will have an impact, as will the increasein the number of vehicles.

While Hong Kong has already done solid research on the nature of local emissions, and there have been publicly and privately funded studies on cross-border emissions, we are not yet carrying out the kind of inquiries that others do as a matter of course. Despite Hong Kong’s status as a developed city, the science necessary for policymaking remains patchy.

This is easy to correct but our environmental officials need to give priority to setting up the right structure and ensure continued funding. The government as a whole needs to focus on upgrading its ability to regulate.

For example, the United States set up “supersites” monitoring programmes more than a decade ago to conduct detailed and wide-ranging air pollution and health-related studies in various locations. This was done to inform policymakers about the cost and methods to control particulates. Supersites take into account more than just regular monitoring of air pollution, and include factors such as human exposure to pollution. The sites include areas with unique climate, emissions or population characteristics, for example. This way, regional aspects of pollution problems can be better understood and dealt with.

Between 2002 and 2005, Taiwan set up four supersites to gain a better understanding of the characteristics and amount of particulates in both the north and south of the island.

In the Pearl River Delta, there have been several supersite studies between 2004 and last year, and the results are being used for planning similar programmes in the rest of Guangdong province. This is all the more reason why Hong Kong needs to set up its own data-gathering programme as a way to collaborate with our regional neighbours.

As the mainland builds it regulatory system, Hong Kong must push ahead even faster to improve its ability to gather and evaluate data and consider strategies to control the problem.

Such research is cost effective: a few million dollars a year goes a long way, and authorities can call on universities to help. The results are critical to policymaking based on evidence. If there is no data, there is no science.

The expensive part is the measures to control the problem that are eventually rolled out by the government; the research is relatively cheap.

A quick look at what others are doing should help the Hong Kong government chart a course. With resources and talent on the ground, there is no reason not to push ahead.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

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