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A case of too little too late on dirty air

South China Morning Post – Lai See 13 Jan 2012

The latest report from Civic Exchange on Hong Kong’s air quality, “Air Quality: Report Card of the Donald Tsang Administration (2005-2012)”, is a damming indictment of the chief executive’s efforts to improve Hong Kong’s noxious air.

It points to a litany of half measures, outright failures, dilatoriness, evasion and poor governance. You do not get a sense from reading this report that the government is in any hurry to do anything meaningful about improving the quality of the air we breathe. The impression is one of a government bending over backwards not to improve it. Its prevarication over the introduction of new air quality objectives (AQOs) being one example.

Hong Kong’s were set in 1987 and at the time were close to those of the World Health Organisation. The AQOs set the limits for emissions above which public health is impaired. The WHO has since revised its guidelines twice, while Hong Kong has implacably retained the outdated AQOs. The effect of this, the report says, is that the WHO guidelines are frequently exceeded in Hong Kong at the roadside by a factor of four or five times.

Unsurprisingly this has impacted on public health. According to the Hedley Index, which uses a peer-reviewed methodology to measure the effect of air pollution on health, smog has directly resulted in some 7,240 premature deaths, 528,388 avoidable hospital bed days and 49.26 million avoidable doctor visits from January 2005 to December 2011. The index assesses the cost of the dirty air to Hong Kong at HK$15.43 billion during the period. These figures have not been challenged by the government or medical practitioners.

The government makes much of its one big success, which is in sharply lowering sulphur dioxide emissions that was achieved by making Hong Kong’s power companies fix scrubbers to power stations. The government tries to pretend that Hong Kong’s air pollution is largely a regional problem and can only be solved in collaboration with officials in the Pearl River Delta. In so doing, it seeks to sidestep the issue that the most concentrated air pollution occurs at street level largely as a result of dirty engines in buses and trucks. The Hong Kong government can solve this issue. Instead, it drags its feet and wastes time with watered down idling-engine legislation.

One point the Civic Exchange reports spells out very clearly is that government reluctance to introduce new air quality objectives is largely because they would make it impossible to proceed with new infrastructure projects such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, the third runway and possibly the new incinerator. This is because each project requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report that has to be approved, and the AQOs are a key part of these reports. The EIA for the bridge had to be finished to secure approval, but it will be harder to fudge EIAs in future, Civic Exchange warns. The impression given by the government is that it is playing a kind of administrative game, but seems oblivious to the harmful effects of air pollution on public health. In stark contrast to the Hong Kong government’s approach of seeking to avoid setting targets as a basis for policy, the mainland has recently set aggressive new AQOs with a view to driving policy. Civic Exchange has a second report entitled, “Principles and Measures To Improve Air Quality Policy Recommendations for a New Administration”. Find both

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