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December 21st, 2016:

What exactly is causing China’s toxic smog?

As thick, choking smog continues to envelop large parts of the country, long-suffering Chinese residents have raised questions

As thick, choking, toxic smog continues to envelop large parts of China, long-suffering Chinese residents have raised the question of what exactly is causing the terrible air pollution.

Have the country’s eco-friendly wind farms slowed air circulation, making it harder for smog to disperse, and has switching to natural gas contributed more harmful particles to the air than the use of coal?

These are the burning questions that Chinese social media users have raised over the past few days as residents across northern China endure the smog that is laying siege to a seventh of the country.

Some critics believe the government’s measures taken to counter air pollution have instead worsened its problems, but scientists say this is not the case.

The burning of coal is the biggest factor contributing to northern China’s smoggy conditions, according to Professor Chai Fahe, a researcher with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.



Speaking at a press meeting organised by the Ministry of Environmental Protection on Tuesday, Chai said emissions from burning coal in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei – the most developed regions in northern China – were five times the national average.

The situation would worsen in winter, as many urban communities and rural families in those regions also relied on coal for heating, he said.

To reduce the country’s reliance on coal-fired power plants, the government set up large-scale wind farms.

Most of the wind turbines are located in grasslands in Hebei and Inner Mongolia to the north of Beijing, and sit across a major stream of cold air from Siberia.

A recent study found that near-surface wind speeds in Beijing had declined significantly, from 3.7 metres per second in the 1970s to just 3 metres per second presently.

Xu Dexiang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, said wind farms could indeed affect the movement of ground air, according to studies conducted both in China and abroad.

Significantly reduced wind speeds had been recorded in areas within 100km from the wind farms, Xu said.

But the impact to Beijing – which is more than 400km south of Inner Mongolia and 200km from Zhangjiakou in Hebei where most of the farms are located – would not be “obvious”, he was quoted as saying by Xinhua.


Xu also said a man-made forest created to reduce dust storms in northern China should not take the blame for the region’s worsening smog.

Such low-lying foliage would not slow down the movement of cold air, which travels at a height of more than 1.5km above ground, he said.

Critics have also raised the possibility that the worsening smog is due to Beijing’s switching winter heating sources from coal to natural gas.

Beijing has in recent years undertaken a massive and costly campaign to use cleaner energy. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, producing water and carbon dioxide when burnt, instead of the dust and smoke that coal produces.

But the water vapour that burning natural gas produces can also increase the concentration of air pollutants near ground. Ongoing research has suggested that tiny water molecules in the air may speed up chemical reactions, leading to worse smog.


Wang Zifa, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Atmospheric Physics, said the burning of natural gas in China pumped more than 300 million tonnes of water into the atmosphere each year – equivalent to 30 times the amount of water in Hangzhou’s famous West Lake.

Nevertheless, water vapour accounts for only a small, “almost negligible” fraction of water in the whole atmosphere, Wang said.

The use of natural gas hence was not a big contributor to the high humidity of Beijing’s smog, he said.

Wang Shuxiao, an environmental science professor with Tsinghua University, said the public should be more patient with the government’s anti-pollution measures.

China could counter its smog problem only if the whole of society worked together to reduce the emission of air pollutants, Wang said.
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Hong Kong to get new country park, protection for incense trees and horseshoe crabs

Robin’s Nest close to the border will be designated a country park and species such as the Chinese pangolin and certain freshwater turtles will receive protection

Some 67 measures are included in a long-awaited blueprint on biological diversity and conservation in the city over the next five years.

Released yesterday, it also takes forward the designation of Robin’s Nest, near the border town of Sha Tau Kok, as the city’s 25th country park.

Furthermore, it proposes a threatened species list and pledges to formulate specific conservation approaches for local species.

Initiated in 2013 in line with UN Convention on Biological ¬Diversity requirements, the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP) focuses on the enhancement of conservation, mainstreaming the concept of biodiversity, improving knowledge and promoting community involvement.

Environment minister Wong Kam-sing said the city’s first such plan would be implemented by an interdepartmental working group chaired by the secretary for the environment and would ultimately “step up biodiversity conservation and support sustainable development”.

The new country park, covering more than 400 hectares of land in the northeastern New Territories, would dovetail with another aim to ¬expand wildlife habitat connectivity – Robin’s Nest adjoins Shenzhen’s Wutong Shan National Forest Park, forming a continuous “ecological corridor”.

“The government will commence the preparation for the designation of Robin’s Nest as a new country park, including seeking views of other departments and stakeholders including the local villagers, before initiating statutory procedures under the Country Parks Ordinance,” the report read.

More ecologically important enclaves would also come under the parks system in “appropriate locations”, although no further details were given.

A new conservation strategy is promised for five threatened “priority species”, including the Chinese pangolin, selected freshwater turtles, the horseshoe crab and incense tree. Existing conservation plans for species such as the Chinese white dolphin and Romer’s tree frog will be -reviewed and strengthened.

Gavin Edwards, conservation dreictor at WWF-Hong Kong, welcomed the plan but said it scored low on marine conservation due to a lack of a clear target on how much of local waters should be protected. The UN convention recommends a global target of 10 per cent, but here just 2 per cent is protected.

Dr Leung Siu-fai, director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, said ongoing plans for marine parks [1] around the Brothers and Soko islands, as well as southwest -Lantau, would raise the city’s level “to 4 to 5 per cent”.

Paul Zimmerman, a member of the BSAP committee that offered advice on the drafting of the plan, said its vision and mission were “well structured”, but offered few practical measures to meet the target of halving the global rate of habitat loss.

“There has been a creeping loss [of habitat] due to illegal landfilling and other hostile actions or acts of eco-vandalism over private land,” he said. “The government is also taking away green belts for housing, rather than developing brownfield sites.”
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Hong Kong gov’t announces new HK$150m biodiversity strategy and action plan

The government announced the city’s first strategy and action plan to conserve biodiversity and support sustainable development on Wednesday.

The Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP) outlines 67 action points in four major area including conservation, biodiversity, awareness and promotion of community involvement.

The conservation measures include designing new parks and strengthening the management of protected areas such as marine parks. Also included are plans to conserve species that demand specific attention, for example, horseshoe crabs and incense trees.

Director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department Leung Siu-fai said the legislative process of designating the Brothers Marine Park is about to be completed. Three new marine parks will be brought online in the next few years, he added.

“In choosing appropriate locations for country parks, the department has been assessing areas based on their ecological value, and whether they can provide leisure and educational facilities to the public,” Leung said.

A spokesperson for the Worldwide Fund for Nature told HKFP: “We do believe that much can be achieved by implementing this action plan, including expanding Hong Kong’s network of marine parks and developing & implementing effective action plans for species such as Pangolin, Golden Coin Turtle, Black Faced Spoonbill and Chinese white dolphin. We will work with and also hold government to account for the implementation of this plan.”

More enclaves

Secretary for the the Environment Wong Kam-sing added that more enclaves will be incorporated into country parks.

The plan also aims to ensure different government bureaux continue incorporating biodiversity considerations in their work. The government will lead, or commission, studies to monitor and collect data on biodiversity, such as species assessment.

The final section of the plan calls for the promotion of conservation work in schools or to the general public.

Hong Kong Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2016-2021. Photo: GovHK.

“The Government started the preparation of the BSAP in 2013. In the public consultation conducted in early 2016, the initiative to implement the BSAP has received general support from various sectors of the community,” Wong said.

The government has set aside HK$150 million to carry out the initiatives of BSAP in the first three years.

2016: Hong Kong’s year of weather extremes in pictures

Hong Kong’s extraordinary weather events in 2016 as captured by South China Morning Post photographers

2016 was a year of weather records in Hong Kong. At least a dozen new records [1] were set as typhoons, heavy rains and baking heat hit the city. As ever, South China Morning Post photographers were out and about enduring the severe conditions firsthand and documenting the climatic events as they happened.

A freezing January

The year began with an historic cold blast for the city and a phenomena many locals had never experienced – frost and freezing rain. Average temperatures plummeted to just 3.1 degrees Celsius, the third lowest ever recorded in Hong Kong. A new record low was set on the city’s highest peak Tai Mo Shan, which hit minus 5 degrees at its coldest point. The Hong Kong Observatory attributed the freezing conditions to one of the side effects of climate change – a polar vortex, which normally circled the Arctic, had distorted and pushed a blast of cold air south.



Some 45 people were hospitalised as ‘frost chasers’ travelled to Tai Mo Shan peak to experience the chilly conditions firsthand. Some were injured after slipping on the icy roads, while others who weren’t dressed warm enough, suffered hypothermia.


A foggy February

February in Hong Kong saw its fair share of ups and downs. While temperatures rose to 22 degrees in the second week, they swiftly fell again to just 11 degrees by the beginning of the third. Thanks to a maritime airstream and an intense northeast monsoon, the weather brought with it foggy conditions, which made for dramatic photographs of Victoria Harbour.



Winter’s procession into March

Hong Kong maintained its gloomy conditions well into March, with temperatures almost two degrees lower than average, making it one of the coldest starts to spring in more than a decade. More than 148mm of rain fell during the month, almost double the average.


It was Hong Kong’s third month in a row with colder than average temperatures. The mean temperature for the month was just 17.4 degrees, compared with the usual monthly average of 19.1 degrees.

A brief foggy cloak over an unusually sunny April

High humidity and warm temperatures marked Hong Kong’s first weeks of April, bringing back the warmth and providing photographers with numerous opportunities to catch Hong Kong’s iconic skyline partly hidden behind a grey shroud.





The Hong Kong Observatory reported that April was characterised by sunny, warm and relatively dry weather, particularly during the second half of the month. The month had more than 159 hours of sunshine, 57 hours above the average of 101.7 hours.

Downpours in May and even bigger downpours in June

Two red rainstorm warnings issued on the same morning in May angered many parents after school classes were cancelled. There were reports of flashflooding as more than 70mm of rain fell over Yuen Long, Tsuen Wan and Sai Kung, while 100mm was recorded in Sha Tin and Tai Po.

The rains continued into the second week of June with dark storm clouds hovering over the city.



Ironically however, the month of June broke heatwave records.

The Observatory recorded four consecutive days from June 24 to 27 above 35 degrees, breaking the previous record of three consecutive days from May 30 to June 1 in 1963. And with the mercury reaching a maximum of 35.5 degrees, June also recorded the second highest temperature for the month since records began in 1884.

A hot, electric July

The month of July brought with it one of the biggest and wildest lightning storms in recent Hong Kong history. During the same week, the city also saw one of the hottest July days in more than half a century.

The city was hit by 10,000 bolts of lightning during an epic 12-hour overnight thunderstorm on July 9 and 10. The Observatory recorded 5,905 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes on Saturday July 9, with most hitting Lantau Island and the New Territories.


The rolling thunder and intense flashes continued into Sunday morning with another 4,095 cloud-to-ground bolts of lightning. In total, it was the highest number of lightning strikes recorded over a 24-hour period, since 9,966 cloud-to-ground strikes were recorded in July 2005.


Twelve days later, on July 22, Hong Kong endured a ‘Great Heat’ day when the average temperature surged to 32.9 degrees. The mercury reached above 35 degrees in some districts such as Sheung Shui and Tai Po.


August blows through with Typhoon Nida

The first typhoon of the year brought a No.8 warning signal. Typhoon Nida made landfall near the Dapeng Peninsula, in Guangdong Province. Initially it was judged to be as big a threat as the Typhoon Vicente of 2012, which triggered a No.10 warning. But eventually, Nida spared Hong Kong from its full intensity.



October – Super typhoon Haima lands in Hong Kong

Typhoon Haima, named after the Chinese word for sea horse, blew in on October 21. With a No. 8 storm warning, Haima shut down Hong Kong’s roads, schools, businesses and infrastructure.



There were 200 reports of fallen trees, including two gigantic trees near the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter, which blocked six lanes of traffic on Gloucester Road. A man died after losing his footing while walking along a rocky shoreline in Tseung Kwan O.

But there were some who embraced the strong winds and rough seas. Surfers braved the typhoon swells at Big Wave Bay as Haima blew in across the city.


By the end of the month, the Hong Kong had endured its hottest October in 132 years, according to the Observatory, with the monthly mean ¬temperature reaching 26.8 degrees, some 5 degrees above the average.

November’s supermoon

It was the second ‘supermoon’ event of the year. Coming just after the Mid Autumn Festival, Hongkongers gazed upon the moon as it reached its closest possible position to earth.


Photographers worldwide sought to capture the best shot of the moon and Hong Kong did not disappoint, with relatively clear skies giving shutterbugs a clear lunar line of sight.


December – so far, so good…

As of publishing December has been relatively uneventful – but if we’ve learned anything about 2016, it’s to expect the unexpected. Have a merry Christmas!


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