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Smoke Screen

Updated on Jun 26, 2008 – SCMP

A certain amount of government spin is inevitable, but it is also time for officials to improve the message. The worst thing is to obfuscate and hope the public won’t see the fudge. A member of the public recently showed me a letter she had written to environmental protection officials, together with their reply. She asked why public health isn’t the government’s top priority, in terms of air pollution control. The writer said it was intolerable that the government had not accepted World Health Organisation air quality standards for Hong Kong.

The reply noted that the administration had appointed consultants to draw up a new set of standards and devise a plan to meet them. It would be finished by the end of the year. Most importantly, it said, the government was determined to tighten the standards “to ensure proper protection of public health, in line with the principles recommended by the WHO”.

A careful reading shows that the government did not commit itself to adopting WHO standards. The concern among public health physicians and air quality experts is that the administration will not, in fact, adopt such standards, for fear of being unable to meet them any time soon. Hong Kong is unique among developed economies in having extremely lax air quality standards, referred to as air quality “objectives”. Indeed, a mistaken understanding of what the WHO standards are about has led to officials denying themselves a powerful instrument to improve air quality.

The WHO standards are based on the best available data and indicate the health risks arising from air quality. If met, the standards correspond to a level that can be said to represent a lower risk, and the pollutant levels show what authorities around the world should strive for. There is, in fact, no real argument over the standards, which were reviewed before being published as recommendations globally in 2006. The real question is why they should not be adopted.

The fact is the Hong Kong government has never made public health the raison d’etre for air quality management. The empowering legislation to control pollution does not mention public health, unlike its equivalent on the mainland, in the United States and Europe. Thus, the Air Pollution Control Ordinance needs to be amended. The government-appointed consultants should make a clear recommendation in this regard. Otherwise, they will have to explain why Hong Kong remains an exception, and how it is going to clean itself up. In truth, public health needs to become a legal requirement to get officials to act.

Once protection of public health is the goal, our officials would have to devise policies to get us there, over time. The public understands that merely resetting standards will not improve our air. It is, however, the necessary first step. The WHO also recognises this. So, governments need to devise air improvement plans in phases.

Officials would have to explain how each proposed measure would work and what improvements could be expected. They would have to track results, so that adjustments could be made to ensure their initiatives delivered the expected results. The WHO guidelines are there to remind everyone of the level of risk the community faces when they are not being met.

By linking health outcomes to air-pollution-control initiatives, our officials would have to be more directly accountable for their decisions and actions. It would not be enough to push one initiative at a time – such as, say, a ban on idling engines. Information would have to be provided about what such an initiative could be expected to achieve. And maybe, even when all the initiatives are taken into account, officials may find that it still isn’t enough to reduce the health risk. That would provide pressure to do more.

Yes, there would be additional costs, but Hong Kong is a rich city, and it is time officials dropped their developing-economy mindset and joined the developed world.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

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