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July, 2009:

Chinese to launch first ever green lawsuit against government

‘Breakthrough’ hailed as Chinese judge says residents may prosecute government over pollution claims

Benxi steel mills blowing smoke over residential buildings.

China should see its first lawsuit by an environmental group against authorities within weeks, state media reported today.

A member of the All-China Environmental Federation – which is backed by the central government – said a judge in Guizhou province had accepted its claim on behalf of residents who complain they have suffered from pollution.

Residents allege that the Qingzhen land resources bureau leased land to a drinks factory in 1994, but construction of the factory has not been completed and they believe the site is damaging two adjacent lakes from which they draw drinking water. They want the government to take back the land and remove construction materials.

Ma Yong, director of the legal service centre at the federation, told the Associated Press the case would open in early September.

“The case will serve as a warning for government departments and companies that damage the environment, as we’re stepping up efforts to play a supervisory role,” Ma Yong said. He added that he hoped it would pave the way for other organisations to file public-interest lawsuits.

Liu Haiying, deputy head of the environmental protection tribunal at Qingzhen municipal people’s court, told China Daily: “We are established to safeguard public interest and hope to encourage other courts to step forward to handle similar cases.”

She added: “No matter what the conclusion is, we hope it will serve as a warning to government departments such as environment, forestry and other agencies, that they should always fulfill their duty to protect the environment.

“They need to gradually realise that they are not only under the supervision of the party and other administrative departments, but also under the watch of all citizens.”

Environmental activists complain that courts usually turn away such cases.

“If this leads to more non-governmental organisations bringing public interest litigation I think this is a very important breakthrough. It means China is going to open the door to more public involvement in environmental enforcement,” said Alex Wang, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US environmental group.

In a separate development, China is to shift a planned £3bn oil refinery and petrochemical plant in the south after years of public outcry.

Wang Yang, the Communist Party chief of Guangdong, said the province would move the plant – a joint venture between China’s Sinopec and the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation – because of opposition from the community and officials.

“We only have one planet to live on, so whatever we do on this end will affect others on the other end,” Wang told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.

“The decision by the government shows that they do consider the opinions from different stakeholders across the region, which is a positive sign,” said Edward Chan, a Greenpeace campaign manager based in Hong Kong.

“Our worries now are that the residents [in the new area] are not as well-educated or informed, or may be more eager to look for economic development.

“The story has not ended. It’s really important for green groups to pay attention to where the project is moving to.”

It is thought the factory will be relocated away from Nansha to Zhanjiang in western Guangdong, a less ecologically sensitive area.

Cleaner air objectives are inadequate


We welcome the long-overdue review of air quality objectives and the newly proposed strategies for air pollution control by the Environmental Protection Department.

The underlying principles of protecting public health, the long-term goal of adopting the targets set by the World Health Organisation and the need for a regular review of Hong Kong’s air quality objectives, are all clearly stated in the review document. However, the recommended objectives are unnecessarily conservative.

Rather than aiming for the WHO’s stringent air quality guidelines, the department has chosen to adopt the interim targets, which are inadequate for health protection.

For example, the newly recommended objectives for annual PM10 (particulates) concentrations, set at the WHO Interim Target 2 of 50 micrograms per cubic metre, is a decrease of only 5mcg per square metre from the outdated objective of 55mcg. Both values far exceed the WHO guideline of 20mcg. All other air quality objectives are, where applicable, set at the even more lenient WHO Interim Targets 1. The absence of a timetable for the achievement of these new targets, and for the adoption of the next targets, gives the public no indication as to when Hong Kong is expected to reach the ultimate air quality guidelines.

The Environmental Protection Department recommends 19 strategies and lays out cost-benefit analyses of the options. The findings of a cost-benefit approach depend on the comprehensiveness of the list of benefits and how they are valued and are too technical for a public consultation. It would be easier for the public to understand if the actual health consequences, for example the number of lives that could be saved, or episodes of illness that could be avoided, are presented for each strategy.

The department’s strategies are limited by thinking inside the box. The control of old diesel vehicles is a useful and important strategy, but alternative modes of transport, such as trolley buses, light rail and modernised trams, are not even mentioned.

While marine air pollution from ocean-going vessels is also recognised as a problem, its solution – which requires a joint effort between all of the ports in the Pearl River Delta and major seaports further north – has not been addressed. Air pollution continues to pose a major public health problem in Hong Kong. The government must take bolder control measures to improve our air quality.

Wong Tze-wai, professor, Sian Griffiths, director, Andromeda Wong, research assistant, school of public health, faculty of medicine, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Clean bill of health

Christine Loh, SCMP

The government must be told, in no uncertain terms, that it has a duty to protect the public from pollution

Pollution is profitable. Major emitters harm our health and they have got away with it for far too long. But the government, as a whole, hasn’t quite understood this yet. Nevertheless, we need a champion and the Environment Bureau must be our pollution buster.

One of the most urgent issues that environmental officials must tackle is improving air quality to the point where pollution no longer poses a significant threat to health, as it does today. The good news is that the government is finally reviewing Hong Kong’s outdated air quality standards – called air quality objectives – which are currently so loose that they are, in fact, a licence to pollute. Lax regulation makes pollution profitable and people sick. The medical science is not in doubt.

If our officials had shown the same determination in tackling pollution as they did in dealing with avian flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome or swine flu, they would have acted a long time ago in a resolute manner.

In the face of infectious diseases, the Department of Health could hardly have asked the public whether they were willing to bear the cost of trying to prevent these illnesses. Health officials were expected to know what they needed to do.

We remember how hundreds of thousands of chickens and ducks were slaughtered to stop the spread of avian flu. Yes, some people complained about not being able to eat fresh poultry, how expensive imported meat became, and some even said that it didn’t matter to them. But what had to be done was carried out for the sake of the community as a whole. Some financial assistance was given to farmers and poultry sellers to help them through that difficult period.

For most people, the fear was the possibility of dying within weeks of being infected. With air pollution, our health is affected over a much longer period. The health threat, while not immediately obvious, is no less real – the impact just takes longer to show up. The Department of Health is not involved in air pollution control. That’s for the Environmental Protection Department, which does not really have a public health remit. Its officials are not health specialists – they focus on the presence of pollutants, not what they do to our health. This attitude comes through in the bureau’s “Air Quality Objectives Review” public consultation that poses a series of somewhat obvious questions. The first is whether Hong Kong’s outdated air quality objectives should be revised and the second is whether health protection should be the key consideration.

These two questions hardly need to be asked, but perhaps the bureau needs to be absolutely sure that we really want clean air. So, let’s tick the “yes” box on both. Our job is to make sure the administration knows that we see it as the government’s duty to improve air quality significantly for the sake of our health.

Now it gets more difficult. The bureau recommends a new set of objectives based on the World Health Organisation’s recommended air quality guidelines. But it asks whether a “staged approach”, with interim standards, should be adopted. It is hard for non-specialists to deal with this kind of question. There is a complicated chart, but it’s probably gobbledygook to most people. The bureau proposed 19 emission-reduction measures and asks “how soon” they should be implemented. The measures range from changing the fuel mix used for power generation, to retiring polluting vehicles, dealing with shipping emissions, promoting cycling, planting trees and creating low-emission zones as a means for transport management. Are you able to answer “how soon”?

For these questions, we might as well just demand significant improvements by 2012 (this should be soon enough), when the current administration steps down, and then further gains by 2015. Finally, the bureau wants you to say whether you are willing to “bear the costs” of these measures, which could amount to HK$600 million or more. Thankfully, we will get HK$1.2 billion in “benefits” – better health and energy savings. Surely, the answer is obvious. The public must give answers with no room for misunderstanding. Let’s bust pollution now!

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chairperson of the Clean Air Network ( and chief executive of the non-profit think tank Civic Exchange

Clean-air investment will reap big returns


A business plan that projects returns of HK$1.2 billion for a HK$600 million investment sounds like an excellent deal. Company executives would scrutinise the details to ensure that there were no hidden costs or loopholes. Department heads would argue over where cuts could be made to finance the project. Driving all involved, though, would be the understanding that this was an offer too good to pass up and that it had to be clinched as a matter of urgency.

This is, in essence, the deal Hong Kong’s government has laid out for four months of public debate with its package of 19 proposals to toughen air quality standards. Unveiling the scheme last Thursday after years of discussion, authorities made plain the costs and benefits. They estimated an investment of HK$600 million was needed to cut polluting emissions, while conceded that this was by no means a definitive figure. In return, our city would get HK$1.2 billion in benefits, ranging from paying less for energy to longer life.

If Hong Kong was a company – a matter not too difficult to imagine – approving such a deal would be a no-brainer. Yet as happens so often with wide-ranging proposals, the discussion is quickly turning from how to make it happen and addressing the shortcomings, to whether the community can bear the cost. Some companies are already complaining that they will have no choice but to increase their charges; others contend that they will be forced out of business. A scheme that has been too long in coming and does not offer a timetable could well be delayed and watered-down – as experience has time and again shown.

Such was the case with the recently introduced levy on plastic shopping bags and implementation of the final stage of the smoking ban in indoor public places. Until their introduction, Hong Kong for years trailed other parts of the developed world. For the same reason, the recycling of waste is still at a rudimentary stage, idling vehicle engines are permitted and electronic road pricing continues to be off the government’s radar. The inaction and part-measures mean that the benefits are either never realised or only partly attained.

The temptation to follow this route with the air-quality objectives has to be fought down. Hong Kong is living by 22-year-old standards, and pollution levels have risen markedly in that time. We have since become only too aware of the contribution of emissions from power plants, factories and vehicles to health and climate change. New World Health Organisation guidelines have to be embraced promptly to the highest practicable levels.

Among the government’s proposals are car-free zones and using more gas to generate power. Highly polluting vehicles would be barred from low-emission zones and phased out. Electricity charges were projected to rise by at least 20 per cent and bus fares by 15 per cent. But our air would be cleaner and healthier. Such measures are investments in Hong Kong’s future. They make our city more liveable and attractive to investors and visitors. There are some costs and the community as a whole, or parts of it, will have to pay – exactly who must do so should be the focus of debate. That needs to be a robust, vigorous debate. But the benefits are so far-reaching that there should be no hesitation about putting the measures in place.

A publicly listed company that repeatedly gave short shrift to golden investment opportunities would fall foul of shareholders. Questions would quickly be raised about the manner in which the firm was being operated. Investors would take flight. The analogy is one that the government must keep firmly in mind as it steers Hong Kong towards cleaner skies and less dangerous air on our streets.

Air quality should meet strictest WHO guideline, 71pc in poll say

Amy Nip – SCMP

The government should set new air quality objectives in line with the toughest guidelines proposed by the World Health Organisation, 71 per cent of respondents to a green group’s survey said.

A survey conducted by Lingnan University for Greenpeace polled 532 people this month. Some 380 respondents, or 71.4 per cent, agreed or strongly agreed that the government should work with the most demanding guidelines regardless of cost.

The government launched a four-month public consultation on air quality objectives last Thursday and has proposed standards based on criteria sanctioned by the WHO in 2005 – 10 to 64 per cent more stringent than existing ones.

Nevertheless, the new criteria could still be too low to achieve an improvement in Hong Kong’s air quality, Greenpeace said.

The survey suggested people were unsatisfied with the quality of the air they are breathing. Some 80 per cent of respondents said they thought there was satisfactory air quality on only half the days in a year.

In contrast, Greenpeace estimated the levels of two pollutants – suspended particles and sulphur dioxide – at the Causeway Bay roadside station will fall within the new objectives proposed by the government for 84 per cent of the time.

“I don’t think any citizen would find air quality in Causeway Bay satisfactory for 80 per cent of the time,” Greenpeace member Prentice Koo Wai-muk said.

The current sulphur dioxide standard for Hong Kong is 350 micrograms per cubic metre in 24 hours. The government proposes to lower the new objective to 125mcg per cubic metre in 24 hours, while the strictest WHO guideline says it should be 20mcg.

Business groups back air quality plan, despite activists’ criticism

Cheung Chi-fai and Paggie Leung, SCMP

Two major business groups have thrown their weight behind the air quality improvement plan unveiled by the government two days ago, despite reservations voiced by a clean air advocacy group.

Teresa Au, deputy chairwoman of the General Chamber of Commerce environment and sustainability committee, said it was worth paying for better air, which was vital to the city’s competitiveness and attractiveness to overseas talent.

“There is always a price for better environment and long-term benefits will require some short-term investments,” she said.

Suen Kai-lit, the new chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, also backed the plan, saying: “We support the government putting in more effort to improve the environment, even if it needs to use taxpayers’ money.”

But the Clean Air Network, a newly formed advocacy group on air quality, said even if the new targets were met, it would not be enough to prevent harm from bad air.

A consultation paper has proposed a set of air quality objectives and 19 control measures to attain them. It offered no timetable but said the measures had the potential to increase the average life expectancy of city dwellers by a month.

Ms Au said the lack of a timetable would give officials room to negotiate with power firms and bus operators who would be asked to use cleaner fuel and phase out polluting vehicles.

She said the chamber would submit a detailed response later.

Mr Suen said that if power stations had to use cleaner raw materials to improve air quality, consumers would be prepared to pay more for electricity.

But the Clean Air Network said if the measures were implemented, there would still be at least 950 premature deaths a year, compared with about 1,100 based on emissions figures for 2007.

The estimates were projected from the Hedley Index, developed by local scientists, which tracks the health and economic costs of pollution.

Lai Hak-kan of the University of Hong Kong’s department of community medicine said new sulphur dioxide targets could be worse than the existing ones as they allowed more exemptions.

“We are surrounded by ports in the region and many ocean-going vessels are using dirty fuel loaded with sulphur. But we do not see the government taking it seriously,” he said.

Meanwhile, Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah told RTHK that the consultation was “not all about expenses”.

“The energy-efficiency measures can give savings to consumers and rationalising bus routes costs almost nothing and saves running costs.”

Report urges wider monitoring of damaging superfine particles

Joyce Ng, SCMP

The superfine particles in Hong Kong’s air that critically affect people’s health should be monitored at all 14 air-monitoring stations, consultant firm Ove Arup says, while setting the loosest target for the government to meet.

None of the annual average readings of the five stations that record the concentration of the superfine particles known as PM2.5 – in Tsuen Wan, Tung Chung, Yuen Long, Tap Mun and Central – met the lowest World Health Organisation standard between 2004 and 2007, according to data released by the Environmental Protection Department yesterday.

Last year stations reported 24-hour average concentrations of superfine particles exceeding the WHO standard 39 times. The particles can penetrate deep into human lungs and cause respiratory and heart diseases. US and local studies have shown the particles can cause lung cancer and affect lung growth in children.

Ove Arup, noting the impact of the particles on public heath, recommended that the government monitor PM2.5 at all 14 monitoring stations and publicise the readings – based on the least stringent of the three interim WHO standards.

At present, the department only releases readings on the larger PM10 particles to the public, although it also measures PM2.5 at five stations. Ove Arup blamed regional rather than local sources for PM2.5 pollution, pointing to the case of Tap Mun island in Sai Kung, which is free of any local emissions but still recorded PM2.5 pollution readings exceeding WHO guidelines by 13 times last year.

“Based on air-quality monitoring data and the fact that Hong Kong’s particulate-matter emissions account for only about 1 to 2 per cent of the entire emissions in the Pearl River Delta region, it is apparent that the concentration in Hong Kong is subject to very strong regional influence,” Ove Arup’s report said.

Ameliorating measures could still be taken locally, it said, proposing the early retirement of heavily polluting diesel buses and trucks, because road vehicles contributed 25 per cent of the city’s PM2.5 emissions.

If phase one measures were implemented, about 4,200 unnecessary hospital admissions would be avoided, it estimated.

Wong Tze-wai, head of the community medicine department at Chinese University and a member of the panel that advised the government on its air-quality-objectives review, said the standards for reducing fine particles were too lax but it was inaccurate only to blame regional sources for high PM2.5 concentrations.

“These fine particles are easily dispersed. They can disperse from traffic in Tai Po to Tap Mun. So the pollutants in Tap Mun do not necessarily come from the mainland,” Professor Wong said.

Marine transport was also a source of PM2.5, he said, but the government was not willing to ban vessels entering Hong Kong from using cheap and dirty bunker fuel for fear of hurting the logistics industry.

Tougher steps on air quality rolled out – Goals on pollution, ideas to meet them

Cheung Chi-fai, SCMP

The government yesterday rolled out proposals to toughen air quality standards, and measures to achieve this, as Hong Kong seeks to catch up with the developed world.

The administration said the steps, which largely meet World Health Organisation objectives, could extend average life expectancy by a month.

The proposals include using more gas to generate power, phasing out highly polluting vehicles and declaring low-emission zones from which such vehicles would be barred. Car-free zones would be extended.

Members of the public have four months to comment on them and indicate their willingness to pay for cleaner air and how soon they want it.

Released by the Environment Bureau after a two-year study, they do not include a timetable for their implementation, and officials admit a bumpy road lies ahead given the widely divergent views of different groups in society.

Green groups said the proposals were not detailed enough for people to make informed decisions. Transport operators said they would push up their costs and raise fares.

The new objectives, 10 to 64 per cent more stringent than existing ones, will replace outdated air quality standards enacted in 1987 and narrow the gap to the standards of the United States and European Union.

The government said it would not fully endorse the WHO guidelines at this stage because regional pollution was beyond its control, although the most stringent standards in the guidelines will be adopted for four of the seven air pollutants.

It said the measures, if adopted, would save HK$1.2 billion a year in health and energy costs at a cost of HK$600 million a year – although it admitted the cost estimate did not reflect all the costs to the community.

The government is proposing 19 measures to help attain the new targets. Officials said some of these would inevitably require consumers to pay more. Power tariffs would rise by at least 20 per cent and bus fares by 15 per cent. But the measures would save 7,400 life-years – equivalent to an extra month of life for each Hongkonger – in a city where life expectancy is already among the longest, and avoid 4,200 hospital admissions.

An average Hong Kong man has a life expectancy of 79.5 years, and a woman 88.5 years, the second-longest in the world behind Japan.

A recent report by independent think tank Civic Exchange found nearly 1,600 deaths, 64,000 hospital bed-days and HK$2 billion in direct economic losses each year were attributable to air pollution in Hong Kong. Mike Kilburn, environmental programme manager for Civic Exchange, said the 19 measures were too conservative and limited in scope, and called for a broader debate.

Cargo van operator Ben Leung Wai-bun said he would have to close his business if his entire fleet was banned in the busiest districts. “More than half of the industry will be dead by the time we can see clear sky,” he said.

A senior environment official said the problems of air pollution from vehicles, power generation and over the border had to be tackled simultaneously. “All we need now is recognition and endorsement from the public that the whole package is reasonable, feasible and something that has to be done,” he said.

The official said it was premature to say how much the package would cost the public, since more negotiation was needed with major stakeholders such as bus companies and power utilities. Such talks were already happening, he said.

A timetable for delivering cleaner air could not be given because of the uncertainties surrounding the implementation of the measures, this official said. For instance, whether or not more natural gas could be used would hinge upon the supply of gas from the mainland after 2013 and planning for new power generators.

Plans for cleaner air are welcome, if overdue


If there is one thing on which there has long been consensus it is that we would like to breathe cleaner air – for our health’s sake. The public consultation announced yesterday on an upgrade of the city’s air-quality objectives should therefore convey a sense of urgency. Instead it lacks a timetable and is hedged with political caveats on proposed clean-air measures, such as whether people are prepared to meet the cost or adjust to inconvenience.

Of course, some will object to paying more for electricity or bus rides, or doing without under-patronised off-peak bus services, or replacing polluting commercial vehicles. No one wants to be presented with the bill, least of all the less well off. But the time has long since passed when such difficulties justify not doing more to reduce air pollution. If the consultation does not tackle them, the government must, even if this means devising a socially equitable sharing of the burden and subsidising costs.

For all that, the consultation is welcome, if overdue. It is nearly three years since the World Health Organisation issued revised global air-quality guidelines to minimise risk to health and life expectancy, with softer interim targets to enable governments to take into account local economic and political factors. It was two years before the government committed to adopting new targets in stages for our city’s air-quality objectives. The consultation paper, based on a review by a consultant, is the result.

Meanwhile, the government has made incremental progress in tackling emissions from power generation, transport and industry, and co-operating with the mainland to mitigate pollution. But the resulting improvement in air quality at rooftop level has raised false hopes. As this newspaper reported earlier this month, analysis of roadside pollution levels in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok during the first half of this year showed that it was above the “very high” 100 mark for the equivalent of 44 days – six times worse than in 2005.

The government has adopted less demanding interim targets than the WHO guidelines for the key pollutants sulphur dioxide, ozone and fine air particles – the ones that were tightened the most. But this takes account of the contribution of pollution from the mainland. And for the first time Hong Kong is to have a standard for fine air particles – the most dominant and most hazardous to health – which the United States and Europe have had for a long time.

It is disappointing, however, that the pace of implementation of new emission control measures has been left to the public consultation. The lack of a timetable for stronger air-quality objectives does not reflect the urgency of the WHO report on the growing death toll from pollution and its impact on the quality of life.

That said, the consultation does propose a wide range of measures to cap and control emissions, backed up by initiatives such as car-free and low-emission traffic zones, bus route rationalisation and mandatory building energy codes. If and when they are all implemented, the anticipated social and economic benefits include a drop of more than 4,000 a year in hospital admissions attributable to air pollution, enhanced life expectancy and economic benefits in public health, and energy savings of more than HK$1.2 billion – double the economic cost of introducing them.

The consultation paper asks respondents: are you willing to bear the cost of emission control measures, such as higher power bills and bus fares? For the sake of our health, the community has no choice but to say yes.

Long wait to clean up air is unacceptable


I could not agree more with the comments made in the report (“Clean-air ideas abound but hard choices rare, green groups charge”, July 15) on the heavy roadside pollution caused by Hong Kong buses. Green Power and Friends of the Earth deserve credit for pointing out the core factor behind the serious air pollution here, buses and trucks.

Unfortunately, the government appears to be far too complacent in the face of bus companies and truck drivers’ groups’ opposition to replacing polluting fleets. Hong Kong’s roadside air pollution has reached a serious level. Any sensitive and responsible government would jump at every chance to improve the situation. But it seems our administration is biased towards profit-driven bus companies, which have reportedly threatened to raise fares.

The government should act swiftly to replace the many pre-Euro and Euro I diesel vehicles on our roads.

Should the bus companies decide to raise fares, let Hong Kong people decide if they want to rely on selfish, greedy transport providers.

Rather than giving subsidies to operators to replace their vehicles, why not subsidise people to take other forms of transportation such as the under-utilised West Rail? Bus route rationalisation should also be a priority, as many routes are apparently serving the same districts, for example, Central and Wan Chai.

It is unreasonable for the government to ask Hong Kong people to wait till 2015 to enjoy good air quality. A responsible and visionary administration would not adopt such an attitude.

W. Yeung, Mid-Levels