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Despair In The Air

Updated on Jan 08, 2009  – SCMP

Are local Hong Kong people concerned about air pollution? Yes, they are. If there are people who still think poor air quality is mainly a concern of the expatriate community, they need to look at the evidence. The Civic Exchange survey conducted in September and October last year, released on Monday, shows local people are extremely concerned about the bad air they have to breathe every day. They know Hong Kong’s air has deteriorated from a decade ago, and they know it is worse than the air in New York, Toronto, London and Tokyo. It is also no comfort to them to know that our air is better than that in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The results of the survey, conducted by the Hong Kong Transition Project, show that air pollution is now a major concern across all segments of the community. In general, older people are much more concerned than younger people. This probably indicates that the burden of environment-related health problems falls more heavily on older people.

However, a vast majority of both older and younger people now want the government to treat air pollution as a top priority. Women are also more concerned than men, probably because they spend more time caring for family members. After all, the survey shows that half of all respondents have suffered coughing, choking and stinging eyes; one-third have gone to a clinic with pollution-related problems; a quarter have bought over-the-counter medicine; a fifth have suffered more significant problems; one in 10 has missed school or work, and the same proportion has gone to hospital – all as a result of air pollution.

Shockingly, one in five people out of more than 1,000 randomly selected adults surveyed said they were considering leaving Hong Kong due to air pollution. As a representative sample, this equates to 1.4 million people. More than half of this group said they were thinking seriously about leaving and some had already planned to leave. The propensity to leave increases for higher-income earners, the highly educated, and people in professional, managerial and administrative positions. Many in this category may well have right of residence elsewhere.

Furthermore, about one in four have heard colleagues at work say they might leave Hong Kong due to air pollution. Almost one in 10 have heard of occasions when their company tried to hire someone who turned down the job specifically due to air-pollution-related health problems. This does not mean Hong Kong will definitely see a large brain drain but it certainly should be a loud and clear message that many people are so bothered by air pollution they have thought of leaving, taking a job elsewhere, and some are making arrangements to depart. There are Hongkongers working or studying overseas who may not return.

So, the potential for a brain drain is real. Presumably, they would stay, or return, if the government had convincing plans to make substantial improvements to our air quality over a reasonable period. Bad air quality has made Hong Kong a less-desirable location.

Indeed, a report by the City of London on the future of Asian financial centres, published last October, noted that poor air quality was increasingly recognised “as a critical element in the ongoing competition to attract talent into the city” and that Singapore had “made strenuous efforts to highlight its lifestyle credentials as a safe, clean and hospitable environment in comparison to Hong Kong”. Annual International Monetary Fund reports about Hong Kong have also highlighted air pollution as a recurring concern.

The new Hedley Environmental Index shows the annual direct cost of air pollution is already some HK$2 billion; indirect costs are about HK$20 billion. These figures are, in fact, very conservative. The sobering fact is that air pollution makes Hong Kong less desirable because it damages our health and quality of life. But we need not despair; there are solutions – given the will to act.

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

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