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August 6th, 2009:

Fresh thoughts


Any cross-border clean-up of air pollution must require co-operation among regional authorities. Opportunities for strong collaboration can be created and sustained, but Hong Kong must make this happen. A good place to start is our own government’s consultation on reviewing local air quality standards.

I’m often asked whether people across the border are sufficiently aware about environmental problems to want to do something about them. Studies clearly show a high level of public concern in the Pearl River Delta. In 2001-2002, when Civic Exchange worked with a Shenzhen organisation on the first environmental survey of public attitudes in the PRD, air pollution ranked third among people’s environmental concerns, behind food safety and clean drinking water. At the time there had been a spate of illnesses linked to contaminated food and water.

Further studies since then provide a clearer picture of what our neighbours think. In 2007, the mainland-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group surveyed the environmental attitudes of residents in 10 major cities. Among the nation’s many severe environmental problems, the health affects of air pollution was the leading concern. Urban air pollution was ranked the most urgent national environmental problem by 64 per cent of respondents. These results were corroborated by a Pew Global Attitudes Survey last year that found 74 per cent of Chinese respondents said air pollution was a serious problem.

Curiously, when residents in the 10 cities were asked in 2007 to rate their local air quality, many thought it was good or even very good. This may indicate that people have become accustomed to heavy air pollution and did not have sufficient information to know the severity of pollution. For example, half the residents of Beijing thought their city had moderate air quality, even though available data showed it was poor. Only 14 per cent said air quality was bad or very bad. In the case of Hong Kong’s neighbour, Guangzhou, 38 per cent thought air quality was good or very good, 32 per cent thought it was “neutral” – neither good nor bad – and only 30 per cent thought it was bad or very bad. Nevertheless, among the 10 mainland cities, Guangzhou residents were the least happy with the local air quality.

The 2007 survey tested whether residents thought economic growth was more important than environmental protection. A substantial majority, 77 per cent, favoured environmental protection even if it had negative impacts on the economy. The survey also explored people’s choice if the city were to set up a business that could provide more than 1,000 jobs but would cause pollution at the same time. Sixty-six per cent said they would object to it.

Some may argue that the mainland economy in 2007 was in much better shape and that people might respond differently today. This may be true but the point is the survey tells us mainland city dwellers are willing to consider sacrificing a degree of economic growth for a better environment.

In terms of how to improve environmental conditions, the mainland respondents wanted better public policies, higher penalties for offenders, better environmental technology, and improved laws and regulations. They also thought the most effective way to make their voices heard was through the media, local neighbourhood committees and even complaining directly to the authorities.

These findings provide a useful foundation to move ahead. Hong Kong’s moves to clean up its air through cleaner power plants and factories, integrated land use, cleaner fuels and electric vehicles, improved traffic management and other policies will set the pace for the rest of the nation.

By working closely with Shenzhen and Guangzhou to clean up shipping- and port-related emissions, Hong Kong can help the region adopt green port policies that are on par with those in the US and Europe.

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