Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Pollution Solutions by Scott Murphy | HK Magazine Online 2006

2006 , YES, 2006 – no political will in Hong Kong  = continued pollution

The TSANG Legacy 2011 = no political will in Hong Kong = continued pollution

Pollution Solutions

Our pollution problem seems utterly hopeless. But other cities have been where we are – and cleaned up. Five pollution-busters who beat the smog in their own cities give some advice to Hong Kong.

By Scott Murphy | published May 18, 2006

Pollution Solutions

Looking across Victoria Harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui on April 25, 2006

Pollution Solutions

Same scene on May 9, after the mainland’s “golden week” factory shutdown

Pollution Solutions

Los Angeles, USA

Pollution Solutions

Bogota, Colombia

Pollution Solutions

Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA

Pollution Solutions

Sudbury, Ontoria, Canada

Pollution Solutions

Mexico City, Mexico


Population: 6 million
: Jim Lents, executive director of South Coast Air Quality Management District from 1986-1997.

The Problem: “In the 1970s and into the 80s, your eyes burned so bad that it was difficult to be on the streets in the afternoon. You could only take about half a breath of air. Visibility was so bad that tourists wouldn’t even be able to see the mountains surrounding the city.

“The cities weren’t doing a lot because they were afraid of offending the industries. But after pressure from environmental groups, the government started passing laws. One of the most important groups was the state legislature. Each county had individual agencies blaming each other and not wanting to do anything. So the state legislature created a single agency (the South Coast Air Quality Management District, or CAQMD) overseeing them all. It had a $30 million budget and 300 employees even in the 70s.”

The Solution: “You first have to identify the problem. Then the government has to be inspired to say, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore. We’re going to make radical changes.’ In our case, in1975, they started to hold legislative hearings to raise the visibility of the pollution issue. After the environmental groups made a big issue out of it with the state legislature, the first round of cleanup started in the 70s. A statewide Clean Air Act passed in 1987, starting the second round. In the 80s, we spent a lot of effort to understand the sources of our emissions. Then we started to develop cost-effective control measures. We looked at the situation in economic terms. We decided to spend up to US$10,000 per person on cleanup measures and pollution control equipment. You can clean up pollution for cheaper than that per person, but that’s the figure we decided on.

“We also came up with strict regulations on automobile and factory emissions. We even set regulations on barbecues and restaurants. Those that didn’t comply were fined heavily. When our group (CAQMD) had 1,000 employees and a budget of about US$100 million, the board of directors was changed because we thought it was getting too cozy. I believe these agencies need to reinvent themselves every decade or they become too interconnected with the industries they regulate. We put together a comprehensive air pollution management plan in 1989. It was revised in 1994, 1997 and 2000. Every few years, you have to step back and take a look at what new control measures should be considered.”

The Result: “Air pollution levels came down dramatically throughout the 90s. We were able to cut pollution in half from 1977 to 1987. And then we cut that in half from 1987 to 1997. Since then, our progress has been slower. The mobile sources of pollution have been controlled, but not the ports. That’s where the big battle is looming now. The ports are protected by international laws. Trains and ships are just being addressed. Los Angeles has one of the busiest ports in the world, second to Hong Kong or Singapore. It’s much more difficult to regulate. Now we are trying to get cleaner fuels and set up shore-side agencies. Otherwise, now you can see the mountains everyday. The job isn’t over, but we’ve made tremendous progress. It’s slow, very slow, but in the end, it’s very rewarding.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “Identify ways to clean up, develop regulations and decide what is a fair regulatory burden.”

➔ “Establish an authority to implement those regulations.”

➔ “Police the regulations. In Los Angeles, there was a huge contingent of people enforcing the rules. They tried to tailor the fines to the size of the industry, sometimes in the millions of dollars. Offenders were identified and prosecuted.”

➔ “Recognize that you can’t walk away. Plans have to be reviewed at regular intervals. New technologies have to be looked at to see what can be added to the plans.”


Population: 7 million
Problem-solver: Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation (1995-97), who worked with his brother, then-mayor Enrique Penalosa (pictured right, with Gil in helmet), to clean the air.

The Problem: “During the early 90s, Bogotá was one of the most polluted cities in South America. There were a lot of respiratory problems, mostly caused by cars. Traffic was chaotic. Buses were running everywhere they wanted. There were no regulations. Everybody would park their cars on the sidewalks. It was crazy. People had almost given up. There was no sense of pride.”

The Solution: “We created a mass rapid traffic system which has since become a model for many other countries. We set up dedicated lanes for buses. People cut their commuting time by three-quarters. We made 180 parks. We cleaned up the creeks and put monetary sanctions on companies that were polluting them. We created 250 kilometers of dedicated bicycle paths citywide. My brother and I closed 113 kilometers of road every Sunday and got 1.5 million people out each weekend to enjoy it. We introduced a citywide car-free day once a year, which created a lot of talk. It was a way to take measurements of how contaminated the city was on a regular day. But it was also a way to get people thinking about their future, and to force future governments to think about public transport options in the future. After initial opposition, it’s now an annual event. When my brother initially made these changes, he was nearly impeached. But by the end of his term, he was our most popular mayor of the past 30 years. But at the end of that first year things were rough.”

The Result: “We changed the way residents thought about the city. Now anybody running for office has parks, environment and the quality of life as major issues on their platform. For many years, people were thinking cars, cars, cars. All of a sudden, people got to thinking that the issue was essentially about moving people. So it became pedestrians first, then bicycles, mass transit, and finally, if there was any money left, cars. People realized it’s better to have a sidewalk than a road. That’s a major shift. There will always be many more needs than resources. Once you start saying pedestrians are first, then you can find the way. Now all streets built in the city have to be designed for use by pedestrians, then mass transport and then by cars. It’s important for people to realize this.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “Just do it. There will always be people who can give you 101 reasons why something cannot be done.”
➔ “People said nothing could be done with mass transit. In 36 months, we changed it.”

➔ “It takes leadership. Leadership includes having the vision and the capacity to do the things you set out to do. Vision with no action creates frustration. It takes both to change things.”

➔ “You have to start with projects that are highly visible and have a really high chance of success. They provide you with the credibility to tackle more difficult ones.”


Population: 170,000
Problem-solver: Wayne Cropp, lawyer and director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau

The Problem: “In 1969, Chattanooga was recognized as having the worst air in America. On an anecdotal basis, there were days when you’d go outside and you could only see a few yards in front of you because of the pollution. You’d have to turn on your headlights to drive in the middle of the day. There was a TNT plant (producing more of the explosive than any other factory on Earth), which released nitrogen dioxide into the air everyday. Women’s clothes hanging out to dry would be eaten up by the pollution. Men would carry changes of shirts with them because they would stain just from walking around in the air. We had the highest amount of total suspended particulates (TSP or simply “soot”) in the country. We were first runner-up to Los Angeles in benzene-soluble organic particles (BSO). When you’re cited on national news by Walter Cronkite as being the worst city in the US, you know something has to be done.”

The Solution: “The medical community was one of the first that came on board. They rose up and started to educate the public about the health effects of pollution. They held annual seminars and invited national speakers to talk about respiratory problems. This was cutting edge in those days.

“We also created our own air pollution control program, which pre-dates state and national efforts. A local ordinance was created, calling for companies to comply with certain standards. Companies that came into compliance by the deadline were recognized publicly. Those that didn’t were heavily fined. The business community responded and led the effort to clean up. There was also tremendous community support for the effort, which meant there was strong political support. You need political muscle to make things like this happen. Two thousand citizens submitted letters and telegrams, which arrived in bushel baskets at the mayor’s office, demanding something be done about the problem. Eventually, there was a ‘visioning process’ in the late 70s, where 2,000 ideas were submitted for what Chattanooga could, should and ultimately has become. A lot of these were public-private partnerships.”

The Result: “We were the first metropolitan area on the US national ‘dirty air list’ that achieved what was called ‘attainment’ status – or clean air (one of the few cities in America to do so). Chattanooga is now in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency for control of particulate matter. We have a program in place to maintain and inspect automobiles. We will soon be in compliance with the new national EPA standards, which are the toughest standards yet. The air quality continues to get better every year.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “The medical community responded first, letting everyone know the dangers of what they were breathing.”

➔ “Once the community understood, they responded and demanded that the government do something. The community, alongside business leaders, stepped forward with a plan to attack the problem.”

➔ “We applied the ‘carrot and the stick’ method to offending companies. Those that complied were recognized. Those that didn’t were fined heavily.”

➔ “We created a continuous education process with the public and children. Children were educated about the effects of air pollution, which are still being felt today.”


Population: 155,000
Problem-solver: Dr. Peter Beckett, associate professor of biology at Laurentian University

The Problem: “Sudbury is an industrial town with three different smelters belonging to two different companies. The smelting industry here goes back to about 1929. When they roasted the ore, they were essentially burning off the sulfur, which would come out of the chimneys as sulfur dioxide. Up to two million tons of sulfur dioxide was coming out a year during maximum production in the 50s and 60s. It wiped out all vegetation. Seventeen thousand hectares of land was devastated. There was also a nearby forest that had its growth stunted – another 64,000 hectares. It all became a barren zone, just rock that turned black from the sulfur. The national notion of Sudbury was, ‘Who wants to go and live in that hellhole?’ It was called a moonscape, a horrible place to live. Less is known about the effect on the people, but you can be assured that there were all kinds of lung problems.”

The Solution: “The first thing to happen was the environmental movement of the 60s, which spurred on the will to change. The Ontario government then set up the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which established emission limits on sulfur dioxide. This was followed by the typical business reaction of trying to delay the implementation of the limits. But the government held firm. The only choice the industry had left was to modernize. They rebuilt one of the smelters in the west end of town, a 381-meter chimney. This sent the pollution higher up into the air, where it would be more diluted. They also installed electrostatic precipitators, which remove most of the metal particles from the emissions. The sulfur was added to water to create sulfuric acid, which was then sold to the chemical industry (a benefit to the company).

“In the 70s, as pollution started to go down, people started to wonder if they could do anything to improve the landscape. This led to the Sudbury Regreening Project of 1978, which was launched to improve the environment and the quality of life. People realized if Sudbury were to survive, it would have to diversify. To do that, they would have to improve the city’s image to attract new industries and business. An advisory committee comprised of citizens, organizations and technical people was formed. It would go off into the communities with black hills and green them. Next they worked on the 330 lakes in the area and started cleaning up the watersheds. After all this time, the cleanup is only about halfway completed.”

The Result: “Sulfur dioxide levels are now less than 10 percent of what they were in the 60s, with further government-mandated reductions due by 2008. Mining is still the largest industry, but it doesn’t dominate the way it used to. Now, Sudbury is not only a regional hub, it even has a tourist industry. It has some of the best air in Canada. Ironically though, the biggest chimney is now criticized for wasting energy.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “Nobody was going to rock the boat in the 60s. Business had control. But then the university opened. This brought in people who weren’t dependent on industry, people who had nothing to lose by complaining.”

➔ “People pointed fingers both locally and internationally. The local and provincial government started working together to make changes. Once changes started, people in the community got involved.”

➔ “The Ontario Ministry of the Environment was set up and charged with creating a clean environment in Ontario. The government came down with orders and laws. If you didn’t meet them, you were fined. These were hefty fines. The first step was big. But now it’s like a technological challenge. The industry wants to improve itself.”

➔ “Cleaning pollution has to be a partnership between industry, various levels of government and concerned citizens. It has to be a real cross-section of the community, from professionals to the average citizen. Now we have a Clean Air Sudbury committee. It’s no longer an us-versus-them scenario. It’s a ‘What can we all do together?’ situation.”


Population: 17 million
Problem-solver: Nancy Kete, director of EMBARQ, a US-based center for international transportation and environment.

The Problem: “The combination of a very dense urban population, a high elevation and the volume of emissions make Mexico City one of the worst places in the world for air pollution. Two- to three-hour rush hours a day are not uncommon. But it’s also one of the most studied pollution problems on the planet. Over the past two decades, the city has taken some measures to reduce the problem. Some worked for a while, but they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of cars. They have what was once one of the best metro rail systems in the world, but it doesn’t reach into the suburbs, which is where the major population growth is. Fifty-five to 60 percent of trips made by commuters are on unregulated private transit services. They cost more than the public services, and they pollute more. They are dangerous and crime-ridden. But they’re fast and convenient. Fortunately, there is a high level of understanding that pollution is very bad and there’s a lot of pressure on the city to clean it up.”

The Solution: “The Secretary of the Environment of Mexico’s Federal District, Claudia Sheinbaum, was empowered to take on air pollution and congestion. We formed a public-private partnership between the city, EMBARQ and the World Resources Institute to find sustainable solutions to the air-quality problem. We achieved three concrete goals: We started a ‘bus rapid transit system,’ a dedicated bus lane which is now the fastest way around the city. (There are plans to extend it to the suburbs.) We modernized the bus fleet. And we installed pollution-control equipment on the new buses, aiming to achieve the emission reductions seen in the US or Europe. We had a 90 percent reduction in particulate matter.”

The Result: “Working with a national laboratory in Mexico, we put personal exposure monitors on passengers to discover what they were breathing at both street level and on the bus. We found they had 35 percent less exposure to particulate matter and 50 percent less exposure to carbon monoxide when on the new buses. Riders now want more bus routes. The plan was a pilot – but it was successful. Now Mexico is committed to feeding this service into the suburbs. What we did was merely a drop in the bucket, but for those 250,000 daily passengers, these are huge improvements.”

Lessons for Hong Kong

➔ “No city will succeed unless it has a champion at a very high level. There needs to be a politically empowered champion. They have to want it, understand the political risks and be ready to take them.”

➔ “If I were to give the Chief Executive of Hong Kong advice, it would be this: Be bold. The political gains will outweigh the risks if you do it right.”
➔ “You have to have public-private partnerships. They’re important. The role we had was as creative and constructive disrupters of the status quo.”

➔ “You’ll need to fix the transit system through a combination of segregated corridors, congestion and parking charges, and new standards on fuel quality and emissions.”

➔ “The biggest barriers are not technological, but lie somewhere between the political and the inertial.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *