Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Four Steps On The Road To Environmental Ruin

Christian Masset – Updated on Mar 17, 2008 – SCMP

In the past three weeks, several government decisions have highlighted our officials’ dubious approach to Hong Kong’s air quality, and public health in general. Regrettably, some of them were contained in John Tsang Chun-wah’s budget.

First, there was the decision to subsidise electricity consumption by granting HK$1,800 per household, ignoring the fact that earlier, we were asked to lower consumption to supposedly reduce pollution from power plants. This sends the message that consumers should ignore the first recommendation, and keep on wasting electricity.

Second, the budget failed to raise tobacco taxes, for the eighth year in a row; they are currently less than in any developed country. This missed opportunity endangers the lives of 32 per cent of our young people and 20 per cent of adults, who risk developing various forms of cancers and respiratory diseases at any time. It also means missing out on an estimated HK$2.5 billion in tax revenue.

The list doesn’t stop there, however. The green light for construction of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, destined to land in the north of Lantau, is another unfathomable action. No study has so far revealed a workable level of profitability. At an estimated total cost of 60 billion yuan (HK$65.9 billion), and given the present estimated traffic, a return trip would have to cost about HK$2,600 to recover the investment for the bridge in 30 years; the only way to make this bridge work would be for the Hong Kong government to pay HK$27 billion.

To this cost must be added the ecological destruction associated with the bridge, including the increased air pollution from vehicles using low-quality diesel coming into Hong Kong. This would only aggravate the already high level of air pollution recorded daily near Kwai Chung.

If the bridge is intended to delay the irreversible decline of Hong Kong’s shipping activities, the cost looks outrageous, and unfairly places the burden on the public to safeguard private shipping interests from the challenges of losing business to Shenzhen.

And last, but by no means least, we have the decision to welcome back incineration – because our landfills are filling up faster than anticipated due to the dumping of demolition waste, and unmet recycling objectives. We keep consuming more than we recycle. Let’s remind ourselves that, from 2000 to 2005, Taipei reduced its waste by 28 per cent, and its rate of disposal dropped 60 per cent. Why can’t Hong Kong do the same? Is an incinerator capable of solving all our waste problems?

The questions remain: what technology will be adopted? The emissions from incineration contain dioxins – powerful carcinogenic substances. How will these emissions be kept to an absolute minimum? And, how will the highly toxic ash be disposed of? The Environmental Protection Department needs to clarify these points to the public and legislators before any commitment is made to incineration.

These four recent decisions demonstrate that our officials haven’t yet taken measure of their own responsibility in protecting public health and preserving our environment for tomorrow. They are still of the 1970s, business-as-usual mentality.

Hopefully, a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology on February 1 will trigger some interest among decision-makers. It revealed a direct link between dirty air and lower IQ among children aged from eight to 11. The researchers detected abnormal oxidisation and inflammation of segments of the brain, causing a loss of IQ points, among children exposed to black carbon-particulate matter emitted from car and truck exhausts, in particular diesel vehicles.

The public needs to know that the administration is taking notice of studies like this. Otherwise, they will be left to rely on environmental non-governmental organisations to take action, and to help them learn more about issues affecting their health.

Christian Masset is chair of Clear The Air.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *