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No Easy Scapegoat for Hong Kong Pollution

The Wall Street Journal


Bloomberg News

Pedestrians walk past the Central Roadside Air Quality Monitoring Station in the Central district of Hong Kong, China, on Feb. 18, 2012.

Hong Kong has long preferred to blame its smoggy skies on polluting factories just over the border in mainland China. But new analysis suggests that the blame for much of the city’s pollution rests squarely on Hong Kong’s shoulders.

According to just-released data from a regional government report, air quality in the Pearl River Delta area has continuously improved over the past year, thanks to initiatives to encourage better energy efficiency and cleaner industrial production. By contrast, Hong Kong’s own air quality, notably roadside pollution, has actually grown worse, says Clean Air Network, a local environmental group.

In the delta region last year, the average level of nitrogen dioxide, a key measure of roadside pollution (it’s the stuff that makes you cough when you pass by a bus trailing a cloud of smelly exhaust), was down by 13% from 2006 levels. But in Hong Kong, the levels measured at roadside monitoring stations during that same time period were actually up 28%, says the environmental group, citing data from Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department.

Indeed, for concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, Hong Kong ranks second among 32 major Chinese cities, surpassing even notoriously smoggy Beijing, according to official Chinese data.

“Hong Kong’s government is lagging behind the mainland here,” says Jia Yuling, the Clean Air Network’s education and research manager. For example, she notes, though Hong Kong has taken steps to adopt more stringent air-quality measures, “it was only after the same announcement in mainland China that Hong Kong’s government decided, ‘Oh, we need to catch up,’ and did the same.” For a city that’s wealthier than its mainland counterparts, says Ms. Jia, Hong Kong’s lack of leadership is disappointing.

To be sure, Hong Kong has taken steps to combat air pollution, including new measures to tamp down on sulfur dioxide emissions from local factories. But there’s plenty of room for improvement, says Ms. Jia, especially on issues of pollution from boats and ships, now one of the biggestcontributors to Hong Kong’s air-quality problem.

At this point, Hong Kong’s air has deteriorated to the point that it’s literally driving expatriates away from the region. Surveys have repeatedly found that the city’s noxious skies are hurting its competitiveness, with many expatriates preferring such greener, cleaner choices as Singapore. Tourists who make their way up to the city’s Peak to enjoy its famous views often find that the sought-after vistas are obscured by a dense blanket of smog.

The Clean Air Network says Hong Kong’s rising levels of car ownership and the aging of its vehicle fleet are partly to blame for its bad air. Across the border, a number of cities are taking on the problem of dirty old cars, and environmental activists say Hong Kong should do more to join them. For example, last week, Beijing’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced it would begin paying city residents and businesses between 2,500 yuan and 14,500 yuan ($397 to $2,301) to retire an aging or heavy-diesel vehicle. Other cities, such as Shenzhen, have offered similar deals.

Asked to comment on the issue, Hong Kong’s environmental-protection department hadn’t responded as of Monday afternoon.

“We can’t keep blaming regional air quality any more for our problems,” says Ms. Jia. “Hong Kong needs to do more to address local pollution on its own.”
– Te-Ping Chen. Follow her on Twitter @tepingchen

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