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April 25th, 2008:

Olympic blue skies can shame us into action

Bernard Chan – Updated on Apr 25, 2008 – SCMP

Could the Beijing Olympics help us in Hong Kong tackle our air pollution problem? For many years, Beijing has been famous for having more polluted air than almost anywhere in the world.

We have all heard people say “you should try the mainland”, when someone complains about our air in Hong Kong, and a visit to Beijing used to prove the point. However, on my recent visit, I was amazed to see a clear blue sky. You could even see the mountains in the distance behind the Forbidden City.

For several years, officials in Beijing have been announcing measures to clean up the city’s air. Factories have been moved out of the urban area, homes using coal and charcoal for heating and cooking have been converted to electricity. The subway network has grown impressively. For a short period last year, officials even experimented with a ban on cars with even- and odd-numbered registrations, on corresponding days. The official target is to have “clean air days” on two-thirds of all days this Olympics year.

Although the city authorities are claiming success, not all residents think the measures have been totally effective. As in Hong Kong, there are claims that the standards are set too low and monitoring stations are not located in the right places. Certainly, there is visible pollution on many days.

Perhaps I was simply lucky on my recent visit, and the sky just happened to be clear. What I do know is that it was an impressive sight and a big reminder of what we can gain through a cleanup.

As the Games approaches, Beijing and surrounding regions will introduce even more stringent measures on a temporary basis. Starting in July, construction sites will be banned from digging and pouring concrete, and a range of industries will scale down their emissions. Many quarries and petrol stations will close temporarily, and activities like spray painting will be banned. Many vehicles will be barred from the roads, perhaps cutting traffic by half and, apparently, many residents will be encouraged to take a holiday out of town. The capital’s biggest polluter, the huge steel manufacturer Shougang, is closing many of its operations ahead of the Olympics and will transfer out of the capital entirely by 2010.

It will be very interesting to see what effect these measures have, because it will give us an idea of just how tough we will have to be in Hong Kong if we want to make major improvements in our own air quality.

The two cities have some important differences. Beijing has a long history of using coal or charcoal as fuel in homes. It still has a lot of heavy industry and suffers dust storms and sandstorms from the nearby desert.

This is why our air in Hong Kong has never been as bad as it has been in Beijing. But, like Beijing, we have a lot of factories and power plants in neighbouring areas, coal-fired power stations of our own, continuous construction in downtown areas and a rising number of vehicles on our streets.

Some athletes are worried about Beijing’s air pollution and have wondered whether they should take part in events like the marathon. Some have apparently said they will wear masks. Senior Olympic officials say that, while the air shouldn’t pose a danger, it may prevent athletes from achieving record-breaking performances.

Against this background, the Beijing and national governments will be determined to get air pollution down in as many long-term, permanent or temporary ways as they can.

If Beijing succeeds, could it shame us into doing a better job here? Some people might say that the balance of power in Hong Kong between government, public opinion and commercial interests makes it harder to take radical measures. The phasing out of diesel taxis, which was hard work but ultimately a success, shows two things: it is true, and it is not an excuse.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council and a legislator representing the insurance functional constituency