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Time Running Out For Smog Review

Time running out for smog review
Government fails to make progress in its examination of air pollution standards

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP – Updated on Oct 08, 2008

A year after the government began reviewing Hong Kong’s outdated air-pollution standards, officials have made no firm commitments to new air-quality objectives – and the exercise is due to end in less than three months.

The lack of progress has prompted suspicions among people involved in the review that the government plans to take a politically expedient shortcut instead of proposing tough, far-reaching objectives that will genuinely protect public health.

The review was launched in response to calls to replace the city’s 20-year-old air-quality objectives with the latest World Health Organisation guidelines, which are up to three times as tough as Hong Kong’s current standards. No country has yet adopted the WHO’s standards.

Sources close to the review say there are signs officials on the advisory panel want to roll out more politically acceptable options.

“You can’t only look at things you believe are workable since the issue in question now is public health, which offers little room for compromise,” said one of the sources, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Unless you have set the targets based on scientific evidence of health protection, there is no way to tell if the control measures at different stages are enough and timely.”

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department would not directly answer that contention but said: “Consultants are still examining and evaluating the practicability and effectiveness of additional control measures available for ensuring the earliest possible improvement of our air quality.”

The department said it planned to hold a public forum to gather views on the review’s findings, with a public consultation next year.

Hong Kong’s 24-hour average standard for respirable suspended particles – one of the main health-threatening pollutants – is 180 micrograms per cubic metre, compared with the WHO’s guideline of 50.

The sources said the panel – comprising industry stakeholders, experts and officials – had spent too little time in the past year discussing targets and too much time gauging views on proposed control strategies.

Recommendations included increasing the use of natural gas in electricity generation to at least 50 per cent, more use of nuclear energy, electronic road pricing, phasing out polluting trucks and introducing low-emission zones – projected to reduce pollutants by tens of thousands of tonnes in the long term.

The sources said a commonly adopted review approach was to lay down targets adequate enough to protect health before considering measures – no matter what they were or how tough they were to achieve – to reach those targets in phases.

Citing the example of electronic road pricing, one of the sources said he saw no reason why 2015 had been earmarked for its implementation, given the direct health risks posed by polluting vehicles.

“When it comes to buying out chicken vendor licences for avian flu prevention, the government did it in two months,” the source said. “So I can’t see why it takes seven years for it to do road pricing.”

Earlier studies on the health effects of air pollution estimated it caused about 550 deaths a year and the use of 19,700 hospital bed days. Hongkongers’ life expectancy was estimated to be shortened by 16 months, on average, due to bad air.

The source said the current exercise should focus on laying down a clear institutional and legal framework in which to review air-quality standards based on scientific evidence. The principle of health protection should also be stated in the Air Pollution Control Ordinance.

Hahn Chu Hon-keung, Friends of the Earth’s environmental affairs manager, said the public’s health would be at risk if the government turned a blind eye to scientific fact.

“How can the government pacify the souls of those who have died of air pollution if it seeks to politicise health issues arising from air pollution, hoping to delay what it can do by evading fundamental issues?” he asked.

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