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Local Perspective on Hong Kong Air

Local Perspective on Hong Kong’s Air

We all know that our air is polluted, but are we getting the full information of its severity? Are we greatly underestimating the scale of our problem? Douglas Woodring, a concerned resident of Hong Kong and local think-tank, Civic Exchange have come together to answer these questions for Britain in Hong Kong.

UNFORTUNATELY, it took Hong Kong’s largest sporting event, the recent marathon, and one of our all too common “bad air” days, to really get people to understand that we are truly under threat from our air quality. Without the knowledge on where we truly stand, however, the calls to action from the community, and the incentive to make necessary improvements, have yet to occur in a way that would be expected in Asia’s world city.

Who is to blame?

Sadly, the main blame for our air quality is the industrial growth on the other side of the boundary, which we cannot easily rectify, although 70,000 factories in the Pearl River Delta are under Hong Kong ownership and should be held more accountable. This is true, but we also need to be able to demonstrate that we have done everything we can in Hong Kong to tackle our own local air pollution before we can fairly criticise emissions north of the boundary.

With little manufacturing remaining in Hong Kong, the numbers are clear. There are two main components of our local emissions: the excessively high dependence on poor quality diesel vehicles, and air pollution from power generation, particularly from coalfired plants, as natural gas and nuclear generation alternatives are significantly cleaner local fuel sources. It is good news, in that the targets are easy to define, but it is unfortunate for all of us that not enough has been done to make the real changes that are needed. Instead, we are all paying the price of a slow pace of change with our and our families’ health and quality of life.

API Index: HK vs. EU

The first issue to understand is the true level of pollutants in our air. Unfortunately, we are still being given Air Pollution Index (API) readings that are skewed by taking an average reading of various pollutants from the previous 24 hours. Moreover, the Air Quality Objectives that have been introduced for Hong Kong in 1987 are only objectives, but not actual standards. No one is accountable if they are not achieved. If you look at the API index based on European Union standards ( you will find an enormous difference in readings.

The EU claims that it is “very unhealthy” when there are 50 micrograms of pollutants per cubic metre of air, where Hong Kong’s “very unhealthy” level is only reached at 180 micrograms. The day before the Hong Kong marathon, the levels in Central reached almost 300 (based on the EU index). Based on the EU index, the readings are above 200 in Central more often than not, yet our local API index reports the same days as just under 80. With nearly 20-year-old Air Quality Objectives in place, Asia’s world city is out of step with standards set in other parts of the world, and until our API index readings and interpretations of their content are inline with those of the developed world, our decision makers will continue to underplay the urgent need for change.

Road blocks

Hong Kong has the highest percentage of “diesel” road miles driven per capita out of any major developed city in the world. This is a major challenge for Asia’s world city. Tokyo recently embarked on a stringent campaign to limit diesel vehicle use in the city during the day time, while California has declared diesel a carcinogen. The European Commission is also preparing to introduce more stringent limits on diesel particulate emissions, reducing it to a level five times lower than the current Euro 4 standard, as the soot produced primarily by diesel cars has been blamed for a variety of respiratory problems. Daimler Chrysler has recently said that it will equip all of its diesel models with particulate filters starting this year in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. This is because the community there demands it. Why can’t these filters be used here in Hong Kong?

In contrast, one of Hong Kong’s bus operators is applying for a new 10-year licence, yet the government has yet to set new minimum standards in its type of engines or pollution control equipment, and only 10 out of 752 buses in operation are of Euro III standards. In fact, out of Hong Kong’s licenced bus fleet, 83 per cent out of 4,025 buses are below Euro III standards. One recent response from a government official to the expedition of the replacement of buses to Euro III standards was “that there is a need to adopt a gradual and cautious approach in considering bus replacement.”

Hazardous to health

Locally, Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are primarily produced from power generation and transportation. They affect living materials, building materials and contribute to acid rain. NOx are also a key ingredient of ground-level Ozone, of which diesel fuels are a significant contributor. A 2005 study commissioned by CLSA and prepared by Civic Exchange shows that Ozone concentrations are rising rapidly in Hong Kong, the results of which can be eye and lung irritation, with long-term recurring exposure potentially
causing chronic health problems.

Dialogue has started to introduce Euro V fuels, where the Sulphur content is five times lower than that of current diesel. This will have very little impact, however, if the quality of the majority of Hong Kong’s diesel engines used is not brought up to date. Serious efforts should be made to phase out older diesel vehicles of all types, retrofit others with the most sophisticated particulate traps, and make sure that the fuel used is of the highest quality. This also means making sure that fuels from across the border, where sulphur content is from 50 to 500 times that of Hong Kong, do not make their way onto our roads.

Polluter pays

In terms of energy production in Hong Kong, with the Scheme of Control under review, it would be timely for the introduction of coal-fired emission control equipment to be introduced under a new regulatory regime, which includes environmental performance targets. Hong Kong needs to embrace the “polluter pays principle”. In this regard, a combination of ‘carrot and stick’ comprising bold leadership, world standards, meaningful penalties, attractive incentives and civic education all need to be utilised to deliver necessary improvements.

One solution recommended by economist Philip Bowring’s recent South China Morning Post article suggested an ‘energy tax’, which would simply mean that those who use the most of our resources pay accordingly. Since there is no longer a significant industrial base in this city, this option appears to have merit, also prompting conservation and energy efficiency along the way, which few seem to have the true incentive to pursue today. Until older polluting vehicles are phased out, part of the proceeds from such an ‘energy tax’ could be used to help convert, modify and greatly improve the tens of thousands of outdated diesel vehicles that travel (and idle) on our roads every hour by retrofitting state of-the-art pollution traps and filters.

The options for improvement, that we have in Hong Kong can control, are fairly straightforward, but we all have to want improvement. Unfortunately, not all of us ask for it with such urgency because we are not aware of what is really happening when we are given air pollution readings, which are out of step with international standards. The choice is ours, but we need to put the goal posts in the right places so that we can judge the results and bring accountability to the system.

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