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Clean air, not hot air, is what we need – now

3038290487_86889e7bc1Last updated: May 3, 2010

Source : South China Morning Post

Good and bad news about pollution can confuse efforts to clean up the air we breathe. Positive news encourages complacency. But there is no excuse for that in Hong Kong. Conflicting reports last week have, in fact, cleared the air about an insidious health hazard. Hong Kong’s roadside pollution is serious and worsening. The reasons are obvious. Officials have long used any excuse for dragging their feet over effective measures to deal with it.

The good news came in the joint release by Hong Kong and Guangdong of results of regional air quality monitoring at 16 stations in the Pearl River Delta, including Hong Kong. They showed that sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in the ambient atmosphere – well above ground level – fell 26 and 7 per cent respectively last year. The number of days with better air quality also rose, in line with a local improvement in ambient air quality.

From the health point of view, it is the explanation that was interesting. Environmental officials were quick to dismiss suggestions that the improvement could be attributed to a drop in pollution from industrial production caused by the 2008-09 financial crisis. They put it down to emission control programmes in Guangdong, such as power plant desulphurisation, and to the use of cleaner vehicle and industrial fuel.

Credit where credit is due. But the lesson here is that official action to reduce the sources of pollution produced improvements, however modest in terms of the scale of the problem. As a result, ambient air quality in the delta is at least headed in the right direction.

Contrast this with attempts to deal with roadside pollution in Hong Kong. Last week, we were treated to a slow-drive by taxi drivers featuring a mass, horn-tooting protest rally outside the Legislative Council. They are fighting a proposed law to ban polluting, idling engines, which has finally been introduced in Legco – 10 years after it was first proposed. Not satisfied with having won an exemption for the first five vehicles in a taxi-stand queue, they are threatening to go on strike if every taxi in the queue is not allowed to go on polluting the air. Concessions have also been made to the operators and drivers of our ubiquitous minibuses.

Why even bother with the law? Because of the bad news this week, to be found on the government website. It shows that annual average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide at the roadside in Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok all rose by up to 13 per cent last year. They exceeded 100 micrograms per cubic metre of air – more than twice the World Health Organisation guideline of 40.

As environmental activists have pointed out, what matters to our health is the pollution to which we are exposed at street level.

The failure of the government to force power and transport operators to cut their emissions, or offer effective incentives for voluntary initiatives, lies at the heart of the problem. Most of our electricity is still produced by burning coal. Old diesel buses and trucks still account for about one third of the total fleet, and ships and ferries burn polluting bunker fuel

In the absence of a popular mandate, consultation and striving for government by consensus is a way of life in Hong Kong. But in this case it has resulted in more hot air from vested and sectional interests than clean air, which is a universal right. There comes a time when our unelected government must act decisively, as if it were elected, for the greater good.

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