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HK lags behind Beijing on air pollution: lobby

South China Morning Post – 13 Jan 2012

Think tank Civic Exchange says mainland is more aggressive in moving to tackle smog, which has put pressure on city to act on standards for particles

Hong Kong is lagging behind the mainland when it comes to tackling air pollution, a think tank says in a summary of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s performance in office.

The conclusion from Civic Exchange came after the environment minister said on Wednesday that the city would measure pollutants smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) at all its monitoring stations by March, a week after Beijing pledged to make similar data publicly available.

Former lawmaker Christine Loh Kung-wai, of Civic Exchange, said the mainland’s recent launch of a consultation to upgrade air quality objectives had put pressure on the Hong Kong government, which had yet to update its 24-year-old objectives despite Tsang’s pledge to do so last year.

“The mainland is much more aggressive than Hong Kong in dealing with setting air quality objectives,” she said. “This has happened because Hong Kong’s senior officials lack the understanding and courage to set demanding [objectives] and to use them as a tool to address the epidemic of public health impacts.”

Beijing will publish its PM2.5 data by January 23, Xinhua reported last week. The announcement came after the US embassy in Beijing began releasing its own PM2.5 readings via Twitter.

Civic Exchange’s head of environmental strategy, Mike Kilburn, said though many mainland cities would take years to reach the new emissions targets – released recently for public consultation – the central government had set targets with the aim of driving down pollution levels.

By contrast, Hong Kong set less stringent targets that were easier to achieve, perhaps for political reasons, Kilburn said.

Citing figures from the University of Hong Kong’s Hedley Environmental Index, Loh said more than 7,200 local deaths had been connected to air pollution in the seven years Tsang had been at the city’s helm.

Dr Wong Ming-chit, of the School of Public Health at HKU, agreed with the group’s conclusion that the administration’s ability and commitment to improve air quality – roadside and shipping pollution in particular – was questionable.

“These are problems that haven’t been solved for many years. And these are pressing issues because people’s health is at stake,” he said. “When you think about it, several thousands deaths is a big number. The public panic even when several people die from bird flu.”

The Environmental Protection Department last week revealed that roadside air pollution levels last year were the worst on record.

A consultation on updating Hong Kong’s standards ended two years ago and the government vowed to put the new objectives before the legislature as soon as possible.

PM2.5 refers to suspended particles of 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter. They are smaller and more dangerous to health than PM10, for which the department publishes measurements on its website.

These smaller particles enter the lungs and contribute to many health problems including acute respiratory symptoms and child bronchitis, cause premature death owing to their toxicity, and cause cardiovascular illnesses, according to various studies.

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