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Dirtiest financial hub is Tsang’s legacy

Hong Kong can pat itself on the back for its business success, but air pollution is much worse than in New York, London, Tokyo and Singapore – and these cities have all set far more ambitious improvement targets
Mar 26, 2012

Harbouring an unlicensed duck in Hong Kong can land a fine of HK$50,000 after the world’s first human deaths from bird flu were recorded in the city 15 years ago. That’s 50 times the penalty for driving a vehicle belching smoky fumes.

Failure to force ageing buses and trucks off Hong Kong’s streets is a key cause of air pollution that results in more than 3,000 premature deaths a year, according to think tank Civic Exchange. In contrast, the H5N1 virus killed 350 people worldwide since 1997, World Health Organisation data shows.

“People normally don’t realise that air pollution can cause cancer, heart and respiratory diseases,” said Carlos Dora, co-ordinator at WHO’s Department of Public Health and Environment, who puts the global annual death toll from filthy urban air at 1.3 million. “Those are the diseases that really are the big, big plague.”

As Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen prepares to step down after seven years in office, he leaves a city that boasts the world’s most valuable stock exchange, hosted three of the five biggest initial public offerings in history and is the best place on the globe for business, a new gauge by Bloomberg shows.

Blotting the record is another superlative: the most polluted international financial centre.

New York, London, Tokyo and Singapore all have cleaner air and more ambitious improvement targets, according to WHO data and the city governments’ websites. As China opens its economy, removing the capital controls that led investors to use Hong Kong as a proxy for Chinese growth, pollution risks undermining Tsang’s economic successes.

“I’m leaving Hong Kong explicitly because of the air,” said Alex Turnbull, an Australian banker at a Wall Street firm, who plans a move to Singapore in May. “When capital controls leave, how on earth will this city stay competitive? Hong Kong is at risk of being irrelevant in the long run.”

The government will continue to strive for better air quality, “both for our citizens’ health and to attract overseas talent and enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness as a financial hub and tourist destination”, Tsang’s office said.

The air-quality meter in the Central business district has registered an average roadside pollution level of “high” or “very high” every day but one this year. In 1999, 66 per cent of days were at those levels. By 2010 and last year, it was more than 90 per cent. On Thursday in Central, the roadside reading was 70, and in the Causeway Bay shopping district it was 89, government data showed.

Airborne particles from vehicle exhausts and power stations have the greatest impact on human health, linked to 9 per cent of lung cancer deaths globally, WHO estimates.

Hong Kong’s average PM10 reading – of particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometres, about one-seventh the width of a human hair or less – in 2009 was 50 micrograms per cubic metre, according to a WHO survey of 1,100 cities. While that was less than half of Beijing’s, it compares with 29 in Singapore and London, 23 in Tokyo and 21 in New York. The WHO guideline is 20.

Average annual roadside levels of nitrogen dioxide, which inflames lungs, increased 27 per cent in Hong Kong last year from 2007, Environmental Protection Department (EPD) data show. Last year’s levels were more than triple WHO safety limits. Hong Kong also adopted the lowest or second-lowest interim targets offered.

The government says pollution trends are down, with a one-third drop in particulates since 1999. Nitrous oxide is 28 per cent lower and sulphur dioxide fell 56 per cent, government data show. Still, nitrogen dioxide is up 24 per cent, ozone 21 per cent, and those pollutants that had dropped are either up or little changed since 2009.

In 1999 the city’s observatory recorded 750 hours of reduced visibility that was not caused by fog, cloud or rain; last year that rose to 1,399 hours.

Tens of thousands of finance professionals and other visitors to last week’s Credit Suisse Asian investment conference and the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens were greeted by smoggy skies.

Tsang has repeatedly promised to tackle the problem, including a vow in May that he would introduce air quality objectives before leaving office on June 30. That timeline has slipped to 2014.

The government had to “carefully assess the economic and social impacts” of tightening air quality rules, Tsang said last year.

Outside of environmental impact assessments for specific projects, the EPD has few legal powers to force change where it has no jurisdiction, such as transport.

Unlike most big cities, Hong Kong’s bus services are run by private franchises under government supervision. Forcing operators to modernise fleets would mean higher fares for many who are already struggling to meet their daily transport costs.

For issues like bird flu that affect “all stakeholders – businesspersons, government officials and the general public” the government is “highly motivated,” said Ming Sing, an associate professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “If interests are divided, such as for tackling air pollution, that’s another story.”

A ban on idling engines that came into effect on December 15 took four years to pass from public consultation to law, and with so many exemptions that critics said it was meaningless. No drivers had been fined to date, the EPD said.

The government also spent HK$90 million to fund a study on electronic road pricing in 1997, which was never implemented.

The city lags behind rivals in upgrading its bus fleets. More than half of the 5,798 buses plying franchised routes at the end of last year were Euro II standard or earlier, according to an EPD statement in February.

Euro II models emit 2.5 times as much particulate matter as Euro III standard buses, and 12.5 times as much as Euro V, Civic Exchange says. The government plans to retrofit buses with catalytic converters that scrub out noxious fumes, as well as trialling hybrid and electric vehicles.

To date, six buses have been fitted with the filters in a year-long test that started in September. The trial of hybrids is due to begin at the end of next year, while no funding has yet been provided to buy six electric buses, the EPD told lawmakers in February.

“These delays in policy are accountable in terms of illnesses, damage to quality of life,” said Anthony Hedley, honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public of Health. “We’ve got cohorts of children who have been exposed to the most intensive levels of exposure to very toxic air pollutants for quite a long time.”

Meanwhile, construction of roads, including an expressway beneath an existing highway through Central, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, as well as a 30-kilometre bridge linking Zhuhai and Macau to Hong Kong, may spur demand for cars. In the decade to the end of last year, private car numbers jumped 21 per cent, Transport Department data show.

“The trend for many cities is to take care of the quality of urban life because they are competing for the same kinds of industries: finance, services, tourism,” WHO’s Dora said.

“Cities are striving to be better, and those which don’t will suffer.”

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