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July 13th, 2006:

Pollution In Hong Kong: Between The Smog And The Deep Blue Sea

EC Newsdesk – 13th July 2006

Air pollution in Hong Kong is drawing noisy protests, but cutting the region’s huge consumption of dirty electricity – not least through residents’ passion for air conditioning – is a gargantuan ambition, writes Sam Chambers

Three years ago more than half a million Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest against perceived infringements of civil liberties by Beijing’s chosen leader for the former British colony, the now departed Tung Chee-hwa.

Today, politics is widely being disregarded in favour of protesting against the state of the air that Hong Kongers breathe.

A recent university study showed that Hong Kong is blanketed in smog on average 28 days a month.

For a long time, the rise of the Pearl River Delta as the manufacturing centre of the world – accounting for one third of China’s total exports – was cited begrudgingly and helplessly by Hong Kongers as the reason for their dirty air.

Now, armed with greater information on local firms – especially the two coal burning utilities, Hong Kong Electric and China Light and Power – the population is increasingly making its irritation heard.

One movement, Lights Out Hong Kong, wishes to create a public protest that will put the democracy marches into the shade.

The organisation, founded just two months ago, intends to ask the general public to turn off their residential and office lighting on 8 August at 8pm for three minutes.

Another organisation, Clean The Air, shows clearly how much Hong Kong is to blame for its own predicament.

Seventy per cent of roadside pollution comes from dirty vehicles and 50% of Hong Kongers live near a road. Half of Hong Kong’s pollution comes from the two power plants, and one third of the electricity they produce is used for air conditioning. Hong Kong has the coldest offices in the world.

Wrapping up warm

A survey released this spring by Dr Deng Shiming of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University indicated that most Hong Kong people like to have icy bedrooms, with 55% of those polled keeping their bedroom temperature as low as 22°C, far below the 25.5°C recommended by the government.

And 20% of those polled refrigerated their bedrooms at 20°C or below. But such wintry temperatures failed to provide comfort for the occupants – as 25% of those surveyed said they woke up at night shivering.

The study also found 50% of the respondents covered themselves with “air-con quilts” while having the air-con blasting.

Shiming, associate professor at the Department of Building Services Engineering, says: “Wrapping up in air-con quilts in summer is absurd. By choosing lighter coverings we can easily raise the bedroom temperature by up to 4°C without compromising our thermal comfort.”

Coal and cars

Greenpeace has made continued demonstrations against CLP, one of the two power station operators.

In 2005, CLP made HK$11.3 billion [£774 million] in profit, much of it from coal-powered electricity generation. The external cost of its coal-related business across Asia-Pacific this year rose 4% to HK$31.1 billion. The negative cost of the Castle Peak Power Station to the society is HK$13.5 billion,” says Chow Sze Chung, air pollution campaigner at Greenpeace.

Chows adds that 46,100 tons of sulphur dioxide were emitted as a result of CLP’s coal-burning in 2005.

“Sulphur dioxide will cause diseases in respiratory system, such as asthma and bronchitis, and is also a source of acid rain. All these external costs will inevitably damage the environment and poison Hong Kong people’s health,” he says.

A spokesperson for CLP maintains that as a result of fuel diversification and the installation of various scrubbers at its power plant, “between 1990 and 2005, CLP has reduced emissions of NOx, SO2 and particulates by 40% to 80%, despite an 80% rise in electricity demand during the period”. A move towards natural gas will further drive down emissions.

CLP’s counterpart, Hong Kong Electric, opened the SAR’s first wind turbine this year, up the hill from the coal-fired power station it operates on Lamma Island.

The gesture has been widely derided as a PR stunt with next to no effect on long-term improvement of the air quality of the region, since no further wind turbines have been mooted. CLP, meanwhile, has a set a renewable energy target of 5% by 2010.

Sam Chambers is a journalist based in Hong Kong.