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What Sherlock Holmes can teach HK about pollution

South China Morning Post – 19 Jan 2012

Modern Hong Kong should learn from literary classics that describe a London perpetually choked by smog to close the chapter on this persistent problem

Anyone who has read much English fiction from the late 19th or early 20th centuries will have come away with a powerful impression of London as a city shrouded in impenetrable, dank gloom.

“In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London,” began Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

The author went on to describe “the greasy, heavy brown swirl … condensing in oily drops upon the window panes”, and how in the streets “the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank”.

The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad’s novel on urban terrorism, owes much of its uneasy atmosphere to recurring descriptions of the yellowish haze which engulfs and obscures London.

Again, in the opening passages of his most famous work, Heart of Darkness, Conrad writes repeatedly of “a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth”.

Seen from the Thames estuary, he describes how “farther west on the upper reaches, the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom”. That depiction should leave the reader in little doubt that the real “heart of darkness” Conrad feared was to be found not up the River Congo but on the River Thames.

For Conan Doyle, Conrad and their contemporaries, describing London as a city sunk in a dank murk was a convenient metaphor for the evil that lurked in the city’s back alleys, and the savagery that endured in the souls of its supposedly civilised inhabitants.

But this depiction was not just a literary device; it was the literal truth.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, London was a city warmed in winter by a million coal fires. In windless conditions, the smoke from those fires would mix with the damp air hanging over the city to create characteristic thick, yellow smogs which, trapped by temperature inversion, would blanket the city for days on end.

These choking “pea soupers” culminated in the great smog of 1952, which is believed to have caused some 4,000 deaths, mostly from respiratory infections.

Hong Kong today suffers from a similarly lethal pollution problem. According to a new study by the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Public Health, our sky-high levels of air pollution now cause an average of 3,200 deaths each year, all easily avoidable.

To put that figure into perspective, it is more than 10 times the number of deaths caused by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003. Indeed, according to HKU, more Hongkongers were killed by pollution last month alone than by Sars during the entire four-month outbreak.

Although Hong Kong’s pollution and its fatal effects are comparable with Britain’s pea soupers, Hong Kong’s official reaction could hardly be more different.

The British government responded to the 1952 deaths by passing the Clean Air Act. This banned coal fires in urban areas, despite stiff opposition from the public, which regarded the new law as an intolerable intrusion of the state into private homes.

It had a marked effect. According to the University of East Anglia, over the next few years the concentrations of smoke particles – sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide – in the air over London fell by 70 per cent.

Never again would the city be plagued by pea soupers. The thousands of deaths they caused became a thing of the past.

Hong Kong’s attempts to tackle pollution have been feeble by comparison.Back in January 2007, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen promised that Hong Kong’s air quality would improve in five years’ time, thanks to his environmental initiatives.

Today even a cursory look at data from the government’s Environmental Protection Department shows that his efforts have been ineffectual. Our pollution has got much, much worse.

For example, in the last quarter of 2006, data from Causeway Bay shows that roadside pollution – the stuff that kills – reached “very high” levels for 140 hours over the three-month period. That is 6 per cent of the time. In the last quarter of 2011, “very high” levels were recorded over 598 hours. This was 27 per cent of the time.

Revising ineffective air quality objectives and introducing half-hearted non-measures like the ban on idling engines won’t save lives.

If Hong Kong is to prevent a whole stadium-full of avoidable deaths over the next decade, the government must now enact – and enforce – legislation as draconian as Britain’s Clean Air Act. A good start would be to ban all diesel-engine buses and trucks from the city’s streets, forcing operators to switch to electric-powered vehicles.

It doesn’t need a Sherlock Holmes to solve this problem. It just takes political will.

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