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Cleanup Is No Breeze

Updated on Mar 06, 2008 – SCMP

Hong Kong has seen some of the city’s worst ever air pollution over the past few days. Readings for various pollutants have been extremely high, and some parts of the Pearl River Delta on Monday recorded the highest pollution levels (Grade V) even by mainland standards. These were well above the air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation.

The government blamed light winds for the poor air quality. In other words, if there had been more wind, the pollution would have been blown away, rather than enveloping us.

The truth is that the region’s air quality has become extremely poor. Day in, day out, emissions are so high that, without stronger winds to dissipate the pollution, we suffer acute conditions. Indeed, most of the time, we are already breathing chronically bad air. The problem is not the wind, it’s the pollution.

The reality of extremely bad air pollution becomes undeniable when the winds are light; the bad stuff just hangs around in the air. So, just to repeat: the reason for our extremely bad air is not the light winds, it’s the high pollution levels.

In 1998, the government acknowledged that air pollution was a major and pressing problem. It said that “we should be satisfied with nothing less than a world-class environment”. The administration concluded that it needed to focus on two key areas: first, reducing roadside air pollution – something that is within Hong Kong’s control; and, second, working with Guangdong to reduce regional air pollution.

Over the next few years, the government had taxis switch from using diesel to liquid petroleum gas, and minibuses have also started to use LPG. It has offered a concessionary duty rate on ultra-low-sulfur diesel, for diesel vehicles – mostly buses and trucks. Owners have been encouraged, through subsidy schemes, to add particulate traps; and any new vehicles purchased have to meet the latest Euro environmental standards. The latest scheme involves providing subsidies to replace old trucks.

To what extent have these measures actually improved roadside air quality? Undoubtedly, things would be very much worse if the government had not implemented the measures. Yet, the air pollution is still extremely high on a daily basis. That is the rub; not nearly enough has been done. So, the argument that things would be worse but for the government’s measures is not sufficient. There is no justification for the dangerously high levels of roadside pollution in Hong Kong. Looking at the current conditions is really the only way to judge success or failure. In health terms, the conditions mean that, every day, many Hongkongers are exposed to unacceptable levels of air pollution when they are at the side of, or close to, busy roads. A comprehensive cleanup is needed. This requires active planning and collaboration between the bureaus and departments responsible for planning, the environment and transport.

Each minister and deputy secretary should be made to read the roadside air-pollution data on a daily basis, alongside the WHO air-quality standards, so they can personally comprehend how bad things are and use that to measure whether they are doing enough. The chief executive and the chief secretary ought to do the same. Unless they show leadership and demand tough action, tackling roadside air pollution will prove too difficult. This is why we have not seen significant improvements to date.

As for regional air pollution, Hong Kong and Guangdong are not going to meet their agreed improvement targets by 2010. It was always going to be a tough challenge, because with the level of pollution being generated, small fixes would never be enough; the region needs a directional change. Hong Kong must work closely with Shenzhen to improve emissions related to power generation, and clean up manufacturing, logistics, shipping and port-operation activities, for starters. Moreover, the government can use the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010 to push regional collaboration. And, please, stop blaming the wind for our bad air.

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

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