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January 15th, 2014:

Time Out Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s new Air Quality Health Index

written by Anna Cummings, posted on Time Out Hong Kong:

Hong Kong’s air quality is, put simply, bad. That’s not really news for those of us who have little choice but to breathe in our city’s sometimes pungently noxious atmosphere. The Hedley Environmental Index shows that only 50 days throughout last year were registered as ‘clear’ – that’s the lowest number in the past four years. More shockingly, around nine preventable deaths and more than 400 hospitalisations occur each day in the city as a devastatingly direct result of this pollution.

It’s a perfect time, then, for the introduction of the government’s brand new Air Quality Objectives and Air Quality Health Index, which replaces the Air Pollution Index. They came into force on January 1 as part of the the ongoing Clean Air Plan, which was introduced back in March last year. The new AQHI monitors concentrations of four major pollutants on a three-hour moving average and alerts residents to the potential health risks posed by the air on a scale ranging from one (low health risk) to 10+ (serious health risk). Our new, stricter, Air Quality Objectives replace ones that hadn’t been updated since 1987.

This is certainly a positive step for the current administration, which is promising to make our air a top priority in coming years. Earlier in 2013, it was announced that $10 billion will be set aside for the retirement of old diesel-powered vehicles, although this will take some years to come into full effect. A Hong Kong NGO, Clean Air Network, has tentatively welcomed the government’s new-found enthusiasm as ‘encouraging’, claiming that concern for the air was ‘rarely seen during the previous administration’.

However, the government continues to be lambasted for what many feel has been a continuously lacklustre response to our choking problem. Andrew Lai, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Department, has insisted that the AQHI will ‘provide more timely and useful air pollution information to the public’, with its accompanying mobile app providing residents with real-time pollution information. But others claim they would prefer to see more direct action. “It’s pointless having an index saying that you’re going to die,” asserts James Middleton, chairman of city charity Clear the Air. “What they should be doing is stopping the reasons that you’re going to die.”

The new AQHI app. (Time Out HK)

Melonie Chau, senior environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth Hong Kong, agrees. “The change to the API system wasn’t the most urgent issue the public needed for the time being, because it’s no more than a tool to raise public awareness,” she says. “It’s not a measure to curb the problem.”Perhaps unsurprisingly, within only a few days of its launch, the AQHI reached levels of 10 or 10+ in Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok, prompting the government to advise children and the elderly to remain indoors.

Many residents would be surprised to discover that marine vessels are the largest contributor to our air woes, rather than idling engines or power plants. To highlight this fact, take a glance at AQHI readings from the remote, vehicle-less island of Tap Mun, located near Mirs Bay in Shenzhen. The pollution there is frequently as high as roadside stations in Central or Causeway Bay. “Our winds are mainly from the east or northeast, for most of the year,” points out Middleton. “Tap Mun is shrouded in nitrogen oxides and sulphur all year… it’s covered in gunk. And that comes from the ships. The wind blows it there.”

Almost inconceivably, the sulphur emissions given off by just 16 ‘supercarrier’ cargo ships are equivalent to that of all the cars in the entire world. The sulphur content of the super-viscous, low-grade bunker fuel used by cargo ships is up to 2,000 times higher than that used in motor vehicles. With such boats trundling around our small territory, it’s hardly suspiring that there is a problem. Even worse, these ships are already carrying low-sulphur fuel – but they don’t use it here. Such fuel is required by law inside Emission Control Areas that are set within 200 nautical miles offshore of many countries in Europe and the Americas. But in Hong Kong, there is no such scheme.

“We have all these vessels going into Shenzhen – and all these vessels are polluting Hong Kong,” says Middleton. “But they’re doing nothing about it! The government just says the waters are under Chinese control. Well, go and speak to China about it then! [If there was an ECA], there’d be an immediate improvement in people’s health and in the whole situation in Hong Kong. But who owns the container ports in Shenzhen, in Hong Kong, in Yantian? Li Ka-shing! I wonder why they haven’t done anything?” The Clean Air Plan does acknowledge this issue, and has promised to ‘begin discussions… on the feasibility of mandating fuel switch for ocean going vessels berthed in Hong Kong’.


Xinhua: China’s most-polluted province faces enormous challenge

edited by Shen Qing, for Xinhua news:

Hebei, a northern region with the worst air in China, faces an enormous challenge in cleaning up its dirty air as data showed that little more than one third of all days last year met quality standards.

The air quality index (AQI) in 129 days, 35.3 percent of days in 2013, was below 100, Chen Guoying, director of the Hebei provincial bureau of environmental protection, told a local legislature on Wednesday.

The province, which surrounds the national capital Beijing, had 80 days, or 21.9 percent, of severe air pollution (AQI readings higher than 200), Chen said.

According to statistics published monthly by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Hebei is home to up to seven of the country’s top 10 polluted cities.

“Heavy smog hit at the time of the “two sessions” in 2013 and again this year,” said Liu Ronghua, a local political advisor, at a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the provincial people’s political consultative conference.

The “two sessions” refer to the annual meetings of the local legislature and political consultative conference.

“Smog has triggered a survival crisis and people are wondering where is suitable to live. Some are fleeing big cities to avoid the toxic air,” Liu said.

Hebei’s economy is dominated by highly polluting and energy guzzling heavy industries, which contributed to up to 77 percent of all emissions into the air, according to Chen.

The three sectors of steel, petrochemicals and construction materials account for half of its industrial output. Hebei churned out 180.5 million tonnes of steel last year, the largest among all provincial-level regions, Chen said.

To tackle the severe air pollution, the provincial government has banned approvals of new steel, cement, glass and nonferrous metal plants.

Meanwhile, it has pledged to cut its annual steel and cement production capacities by 60 million tonnes respectively by 2017 and to reduce its annual coal consumption by 40 million tonnes from 2012 levels under the same time frame.

To meet the targets, authorities will encourage mergers and acquisitions and order closures or use pricing reforms to prompt outdated facilities to shut down.

Hebei has entered a period of painful economic transition and the government will focus more on environmental protection and greener growth rather than on pure gross domestic product expansion, said Zhang Qingwei, governor of Hebei.

The central government is becoming more serious in tackling pollution as the choking air has become the target of growing discontent among urban residents.

In September, the State Council, or the Cabinet, signed air pollution control initiatives with six provinces and municipalities in north China, including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shandong, in a coordinated effort to tackle severe air pollution.

8 Jan 2014