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Don’t Delay Cleanup

Updated on Aug 14, 2008 – SCMP

Guangdong and Hong Kong must start to plan how they will improve air quality in time for the East Asian Games and the Asian Games in November 2009 and 2010, respectively. Despite valiant efforts, it has not been easy to clear the smog in Beijing in time for the Olympic Games. Indeed, Beijing’s experience provides an important lesson for every place trying to clean up. Shutting down factories and building sites in the final stretch may not be enough because, not only are there geography and meteorology to contend with, there are also physics and chemistry.

Just consider what Beijing has done already. Planning for the “blue sky project” actually goes back to 1998 and has, so far, cost more than 140 billion yuan (HK$160 billion). The Capital Iron and Steel Group, or Shougang, was relocated from Beijing to a new site in Tangshan as one of the government’s key efforts to reduce air pollution for the Games. The capital has also modernised many factories, imposed tougher emissions controls and taken many other steps to upgrade surrounding industries.

News reports indicate major polluters – including electroplating, cement and paper plants – were shut down or suspended as early as last year. Government subsidies were also provided to many enterprises for remediation work and personnel upgrades. Moreover, the city issued an air-pollution control notice in April requiring polluting industries to stop work from July 20 for three months. Power plants were asked to use higher-quality fuels to help reduce polluting emissions. While sulphur dioxide emissions have been reduced, suspended fine particulate levels remain extremely high. Lung-affecting ozone, particularly in its secondary form – that is, formed by the chemical interaction of various pollutants – remains a big headache. Just before the Games, the city introduced an odd-and-even licence plate system whereby only half its vehicles were allowed on the road each day. It is now widely recognised what a massive effort that was, because it affected more than 3 million vehicles.

Du Shaozhong , deputy director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, counted some 200 air-pollution control measures undertaken in connection with the Olympics. Most significantly, some will continue afterwards. This is good news because, in the short term, even aggressive measures are not enough. To improve the public health of the people, sustained efforts are essential. The Olympics has made top officials aware that shutting things down is, in fact, a desperation measure that has only limited impact. While green groups have criticised the “blue sky efforts” as short term, they acknowledged that the Games has opened a door for long-term improvements.

The coming decade will be critical for China. It needs to tighten air-quality standards, for starters. One key discussion point in Beijing is just how good or bad pollution is on a day-to-day basis. The problem arises because of the difference in air-quality standards; China’s are lower than those used in developed countries. Setting lower standards does not help; it simply excuses high pollution levels. Without telling people and industries the harm that pollution causes, through proper standards, how can there be the constant pressure necessary to clean up?

In our nation’s case, it is officially acknowledged that the efforts in Beijing for the Olympics will help upgrade industry, which will have a positive long-term economic impact. The most precious of resources – natural and human – will benefit. Heavy pollution makes the planet, as well as people, sick. The monetary gain from “business as usual” industrial growth is not balanced or sustainable.

For us, there is an immediate need to study pollution data and emissions sources to understand them within the context of the region’s geography and meteorology. Trying out model control measures can help to see which may be the most effective. Hong Kong and Guangdong need to get on with devising plans to clean up now.

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

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