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Earth Day 2004

Earth Day 2004

South China Morning Post Editorial
Friday April 23 2004

Facts on pollution must get public airing

Earth Day brought distressing news about the quality of the air we breathe. First was the warning from a Chinese University researcher that a confidential government-commissioned study shows Hong Kong is paying a high public health cost for its relatively weak air quality standards, especially in regard to particulate matter – emissions small enough to damage lungs and other organs.

Then there was the revelation by our largest power producer, CLP Power, that emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide particles have increased dramatically over the past year – thanks in large part to soaring demand from Guangdong and increasingly heavy reliance on coal.

These findings confirm what many of us already knew from just looking out our windows in recent months: despite reductions in certain readings over the past few years, more must be done.

To begin with, the Environmental Protection Department should release the study on the link between air quality and public health without delay. If fine particulates and other pollutants are found in higher concentrations than deemed acceptable in cities overseas – and if they pose a hazard to our health – the public has a right to know. Such information cannot justifiably remain confidential.

Once the facts are known, there can be consideration of whether existing standards need to be revised and how any higher requirements could be met.

The CLP report raises different issues, some of which are best addressed on a region-wide basis. Demand from factories on the mainland soared last year. Coupled with restricted supplies of gas, this meant a heavy reliance on coal and increased pollution. CLP hints at continued reliance on coal in the immediate future and plans to install equipment for filtering the rising level of pollution.

But the efforts should not stop there. Sales to mainland customers have translated into higher profits for the company. More of that income should now be reinvested in expanding pilot projects on renewable energy. Small experiments in wind and hydropower and renewable cell energy have up to now been only tokenistic; now there is a need – and an opportunity – to make them a bigger priority, at little risk to CLP’s bottom line.

Of course, any discussion of the air pollution problem has to acknowledge that Hong Kong-invested companies play a large part in running the factories behind the surge in regional power demand. Likewise, the health effects from coal-fired power plants and diesel-fuelled cars are felt on both sides of the border. It is hoped that policymakers will see the need to put the finger-pointing of recent years behind them and find ways to co-operate on reducing pollution throughout the region.

Our environment officials are beginning to make some progress on convincing Guangdong to improve or close the oldest and most-polluting of its coal-burning electricity plants. But as a region we are very far from finding a way to balance rapid economic development with the equally important project of clearing our skies.

Until a truly effective mechanism for co-operating on regional air quality is set up, the least Hong Kong can do is lead by example and ensure that we do not make matters worse for the delta’s inhabitants. This should include being at the forefront of developing alternatives to coal as an energy source. It also could include more co-operation on improving filtering technology at mainland power plants and raising standards on diesel used in cars, buses and trucks. Last, it should involve frank discussion on the connection between air pollution and health. For that to happen, the findings of the Chinese University study must be released.

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