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March 26th, 2009:

Air Of Detachment

CHRISTINE LOH, SCMP – Mar 26, 2009

The government ought to do the work itself. By palming off a review of Hong Kong’s outdated air quality objectives to a consultant, the administration has shown its disconnectedness from a critical task. This is not its intention, of course. Presumably, the government wanted to appear independent, but this was not how it came across last Friday at the “public consultation” organised by the consultant.

About 450 people showed up despite having less than two weeks’ notice of an event that was held during working hours. The timing alone created the impression that the “consultation” was not being taken seriously. The crowd was told the gathering was part of what the consultant was obliged to do under its contract with the government. So, it wasn’t the government, but the consultant, consulting the people. The director of environmental protection was there to start the event, but left early. Lower-ranking officials stayed but it was a team from the consultancy firm that presented its initial recommendations and answered questions from the public.

The consultant is a big international firm, although what appeared strange right from the start, to people familiar with air-quality management, was its local team’s relative inexperience in the subject. The firm had apparently invited a panel of local experts to provide assistance, and numerous meetings were held, but it appears a number of those with science and public-health backgrounds did not agree with the firm’s recommendations.

Is the government an independent party to all that? Of course not. First, upon questioning from the public, it turned out that public health was not the key priority in the consultant’s brief. This was a shock to those who showed up. People naturally thought Hong Kong was finally revising the air quality objectives because current standards have become a licence to pollute and health should be the new driver.

Second, the way the consultant constructed its presentation gave the impression that its recommendation on resetting the objectives was already close to the World Health Organisation guidelines, which are the most authoritative in the world in terms of health protection. The presenter said that some permitted pollutant levels would be set at WHO levels while others would be based on interim targets. What the presenter didn’t say was that there are, in fact, no interim targets under WHO guidelines for some pollutants, and what was at issue was whether the consultant recommended unambitious interim targets.

The consultant also talked about costs related to its cleanup plan but did not release the details of how those costs were calculated. There were benefits, too, but the presentation was focused on costs, presumably to emphasise that clean air doesn’t come free. Not unexpectedly, almost every question from the public had to do with those assumptions on costs and benefits. The information was not released, presumably because the client – the government – did not authorise it. The inevitable happened (in fact, it had already happened the day before, when the consultant appeared before legislators): the government official present had to agree to release the information. This will happen on April 16, when the administration gives it to legislators.

It was no way to organise a public consultation. Without releasing critical information ahead of time, the event was bound to fail. It was not possible to have a meaningful exchange. The consultation was an afterthought. No wonder people went away thinking it was a disaster.

The consultant’s recommended revisions are unlikely to be tough enough to lead to policy changes that will dramatically clean up local pollution – such as at the roadside – in the foreseeable future. The government should have conducted the review instead of shielding itself behind the consultant. Neither the government nor its hired guns can ever appear neutral. The long-standing habit of giving critical policymaking functions to consultants does nothing to strengthen the government’s own capacity.

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

Wan Chai Air Pollution Report Spurs Push For Traffic-free Streets

Cheung Chi-fai, SCMP – Mar 26, 2009

Local politicians in Wan Chai want more pedestrian flyovers, traffic-free streets and further greening of the area after a study they commissioned found particulate matter in the district’s air at levels nearly five times higher than recommended under the most stringent world standards.

The joint Wan Chai District Council/Neighbourhood Advice-Action Council study measured fine particle concentrations – known as PM 2.5 – at 15 locations in the district between December and January and found none of the readings met World Health Organisation air quality guidelines.

Conducted by Polytechnic University experts, the study also discovered that up to 72 per cent of particles found in the tested air were very fine ones capable of infiltrating directly into lungs and blood systems, causing even greater health threats than more coarse “fine” particles.


The highest reading recorded was 140 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre in Causeway Road, compared to the WHO standard of 25 micrograms per cubic metre. Even in the city’s largest open space, Victoria Park, the reading was 30 micrograms per cubic metre. Study readings were largely in line with official air quality monitoring in Yee Wo Street, which measures only coarser “fine” particles, the study said.

Daniel Chan Wai-tin, an engineering professor in charge of the study, said the chosen locations were representative of the commercial and tourism district characterised by heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic and high-rise buildings.

He said the high pollution readings were mainly attributable to emissions from vehicles and the poor pollutant dispersion capabilities of the built environment.

The wall effect created by the concrete jungle had blocked the dispersion of pollutants once made possible by natural inflow of sea breeze, and increased pollution in the district, Professor Chan said.

To ease the pollution, Professor Chan recommended more pedestrian flyovers and subways to separate traffic from commuters, and more planting of vegetation throughout the district.

Wan Chai District Council chairman Suen Kai-cheong said the study’s findings would be useful in discussions by councillors and community members relating to ways to reduce air pollution.

“The findings will provide us with some objective and scientific evidence that might help persuade different parties to come to a consensus on certain projects beneficial to the air quality that requires some changes,” he said.

The study will be submitted to the government for reference.

Australia Defends Inclusion Of Air Pollution In New Travel Warning

Rosanne Barrett, SCMP – Mar 26, 2009

The Australian government has defended its decision to cite air pollution in Hong Kong in a new travel warning. It said a change to its travel advice for the city, highlighting the potential health impacts of air pollution, was timely as part of a “comprehensive, consistent and factual” warning.

The South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) reported yesterday that Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs had included a notice about air pollution in Hong Kong as a health issue as part of an updated alert on Monday.

It warned that air pollution levels could “aggravate bronchial, sinus or asthma conditions”, and that people with heart or respiratory illnesses should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activities on days when very high pollution levels were recorded.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the department said the change to the travel advice brought it in line with “similarly affected” places and used the Hong Kong government’s own health advice to its citizens.

“The Australian government has an obligation to notify its citizens to circumstances that may affect their welfare when travelling,” he said.

But a spokesman for lobby group Clear The Air said the advice was not up to date as it used government data that relied on old standards and did not reflect current World Health Organisation air quality standards.

The WHO’s standards for measuring air pollution are stricter than those used by the Hong Kong government.