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Hong Kong’s Hazy Outlook –


November 26, 2012, 10:52 a.m. ET

Hong Kong’s Hazy Outlook


HONG KONG—Diesel fumes from aging trucks and buses that clog Hong Kong’s narrow streets are putting Asia’s financial hub on course for one of its worst years ever for roadside air pollution.

The city prides itself on its reputation for modernity that attracts professionals from around the world. And though smog regularly obscures Hong Kong’s famed harbor, some pollution has become an accepted fact of life.


European Pressphoto Agency

A pedestrian tries her hand as an air filter while crossing a Hong Kong street in August, as roadside pollution reached record levels.

But air quality has taken a turn for the worse.

Last month marked Hong Kong’s worst October for roadside pollution—air quality measured at street level—since the Environmental Protection Department began keeping the data in 1998. On 25 of 31 days, the air was bad enough that the government urged children, the elderly and the frail to stay indoors. In November, warnings have been issued for 15 of the first 24 days.

“On certain days and weeks we don’t open the windows,” said Andrew Leyden, an American tech entrepreneur who moved to Hong Kong two years ago with his wife and two young sons.

“I check the pollution reports here more often than I check the weather.” When the pollution is bad he has his elder son skip soccer practice and refuses to let him go downtown.

Experts say the source of the bad roadside air is mostly local. Hong Kong is a major transshipment center for the region, and large numbers of trucks enter from mainland China carrying containers to the port. But most of the pollution that leaves Hong Kong pedestrians coughing comes from local trucks and the city’s ubiquitous double-decker buses, whose exhaust fumes accumulate in the dense forest of skyscrapers and narrow streets. The government reckons 80% of roadside pollutants are from aging diesel commercial vehicles.


Bloomberg News

Commuters at a Hong Kong bus stop earlier this year.

Activists have criticized the government for trailing other cities in clamping down on polluters. A recent report by the city’s audit department found Hong Kong has failed to meet its own targets on air quality since their adoption in 1987.

Even among China’s notoriously smoggy major cities, Hong Kong ranks second in nitrogen dioxide—a key indicator of roadside pollution—according to official Chinese data for 2010, the most recent available.

Hong Kong’s environmental department says overall air quality has improved in recent years as rules on power-plant emissions have grown more stringent. And Friday it announced it hopes to reduce certain pollutants between 5% and 25% by 2015 by adopting additional control measures.

Meanwhile the air in the city streets has continued to worsen. When the roadside air pollution index—a measure of pollutants from ozone to carbon monoxide—exceeds 100, the government discourages people from spending time outside. That happened on 172 days last year, compared with just 25 in 2000. So far this year, this number of days with warnings stands at 134.

In contrast to mainland China, which mandates cargo trucks be scrapped after 15 years, Hong Kong does not require old vehicles to be retired, with the exception of public buses. They must be removed from service after 18 years. The Hong Kong government does require that all newly registered vehicles comply with tight emissions standards—but says that more than 90% of the 121,000 diesel commercial vehicles operating in the city don’t meet them.

Beijing and Shanghai have banned high-polluting vehicles from certain areas. Hong Kong doesn’t plan to follow suit until 2015, when it will ban high-emission buses from a few busy street corridors.

Since his inauguration in July, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has pledged to do more about the city’s air. In September, he appointed well-known green activist Christine Loh as environment undersecretary. And last month the government said it was considering banning old diesel vehicles.

“I think maybe we’re hitting a critical tipping point here,” said Joanne Ooi, who helped found the Clean Air Network, a local nongovernmental organization.

The government has been working with public bus companies to retrofit older buses to reduce emissions. It has also introduced subsidies to encourage truck owners to upgrade to cleaner vehicles, and has partnered with authorities across the Pearl River Delta to try to reduce pollution.

Surveys suggest air pollution is hurting Hong Kong’s competitiveness. One in four Hong Kong residents has considered emigrating as a result of poor air quality, according to a 2010 Civic Exchange survey.

Still, while expatriates complain about the pollution levels, cases such as that of Edo de Waart—who while music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic sent his wife and children back to Wisconsin to breathe cleaner air—are rare. The city’s attractiveness as a gateway to China remains a powerful lure.

The University of Hong Kong estimates an average of 3,200 avoidable deaths were caused by air pollution annually in the past five years. Exposure to heavy air pollution, even for a short term, raises the risks of strokes, heart failure and arrhythmias, according to experts.

“It’s really bad,” says Ko Kam Sing, 44, a Hong Kong local who works as a chauffeur and says his nose and throat often feel dry and irritated because of the air pollution. “But there’s nothing ordinary people can do about it. It’s very hard to change.”

Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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