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Now there can be no more pollution excuses

124771008967299_11Last updated: March 23, 2010

Source: South China Morning Post

The government has finally got the wake-up call on air pollution that it has for so long had coming. Hazardous levels to the limits of the index yesterday prompted officials into urgent meetings. For years they have done as little as possible to meet concerns, but the choking red particles are impossible to disregard. A quirk of nature or not, this time the promised action has to be given priority and taken.

If authorities had our interests at heart, timely warnings would have been issued. Instead, predicted air pollution levels were grossly underestimated and the alert for a sandstorm that had been known about for days was posted while we slept. A system proposed three years ago by the Sustainable Development Council, but never adopted, should have been in place telling us to stay at home and not go to school or work. Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable elderly and young people and those with heart and lung problems have been unnecessarily exposed to dangerous pollution levels.

There has been no shortage of consultations, pledges, part-measures and rhetoric over the past decade. A large proportion of the population has made its views known. Solutions have been offered and calls for prompt action made. But all we have to show for the effort are increasingly worse roadside readings.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of government will. It refuses to force the power and transport companies polluting the environment to take concerted action. The schemes offered up are voluntary with few incentives. As a result, the majority of our electricity still comes from highly-polluting coal and oil, cargo ships and ferries burn the worst pollutants of all, bunker fuel, and an unreasonably large number of old diesel buses and trucks – about one-third of the fleet – remain on our roads.

The fruits of this neglect were yesterday on plain show for us and visiting businesspeople and tourists to breathe and see and for the world to witness. Authorities are not at fault for the freak sandstorm and wind conditions, but they are directly to blame for the pollutants that mixed with the particles that created never-imagined readings. We were told to avoid going outdoors, and schools advised to cancel sports activities. This is a knee-jerk response to circumstances that were known about, but handled poorly due to a lack of policy.

Overgrazing in the mainland’s northwest has created the deserts from which the sandstorms have come. We are powerless to deal with this environmental degradation; the central government is struggling to revegetate lost farmland and forests. But pollution of our own making is quite another matter. Legally-binding policies and better use of the government’s considerable resources will make a difference.

The dust will gradually dissipate. Authorities have finally made the air pollution forecasts they should have two or so days ago. The day the index was breached will go down in collective memory. There is no better jolt for a government that has been complacent about the biggest threat to our city’s health. The right mindset has been lacking; now there can be no more excuses.

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