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Hong Kong’s Air Pollution Causes Some to Think Twice About Living There

By Kari Jensen, VOA – 15 January 2009

Air pollution in Hong Kong has gotten so bad that some businesses are losing staff and customers. A city watchdog group says the government is not doing enough to reduce pollution, much of which comes from mainland China.

Hong Kong’s skies were clear and blue when Alan Knight first arrived there in 1993. But, within 12 years, the city had become so polluted there were days when he could not see through the gray haze across Victoria Harbor.

Knight’s work requires travel. He is a journalist and professor. He also has a lung condition, which usually is dormant. But it flared, a few years back, when he returned to Hong Kong. He was hospitalized and received high dosages of antibiotics. Once he was back in Brisbane, Australia the condition resolved itself.

Knight says he is looking to move back to Asia, but not Hong Kong.

“I think the atmosphere in Hong Kong is really toxic,” he said. “I’d love to come back to Hong Kong. I love the city. I love the people. I love the place. But, quite frankly, I’m likely to live in Singapore.”

The city’s poor air quality is affecting both its residents’ health and its economy. A recent survey shows one in five Hong Kongers may leave the city, because of air pollution. Air pollution costs more than $283 million annually in health care costs and lost job prospects.

Michael DeGolyer is a professor in international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He conducted the air pollution survey for Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank.

He says about 30 percent of those who are seriously considering leaving because of bad air are mid- to high-level professionals.

DeGolyer says more than 97 percent of those surveyed were ethnic Chinese. He says air pollution is not just an expat concern.

“Everybody breathes air,” he said. “And, it’s become a concern to everybody now.”

In southern China, factories are closing down, in part because of tougher environmental standards. Still, Chinese factories in the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong are the city’s major source of pollution.

But half the time, Hong Kong’s pollution comes directly from its power plants, vehicular emissions and marine traffic.

In the city’s urban areas, tall buildings trap particulates, instead of allowing them to be dispersed by the wind. Residents live close to the roadways and are constantly exposed.

Local activists are looking to other major cities to see what they did to curtail pollution. DeGolyer says research in California shows money spent on air pollution abatement was more than recovered by reduced health care costs and improved worker productivity.

Civic Exchange is pushing Hong Kong to impose stricter air quality standards. It wants the environmental standards to also protect public health. It hosted a clean air conference recently, where international researchers, scientists, economists and academics discussed green measures.

Hong Kong’s present guidelines have not been updated for more than two decades. The city’s air quality, in terms of sulfur content, is much less stringent than World Health Organization guidelines set in 2006.

A Hong Kong legislature’s environmental affairs committee plans to review air quality guidelines and possibly adopt more stringent standards this year.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department has made efforts to curtail pollution. It has tightened vehicle and power plant emissions and introduced cleaner fuels.

Although sulfur dioxide emissions in the city have dropped back to almost 1997 levels, they are still well above the government’s emission-reduction targets. Air pollution worsened this past year.

Government detractors say, in terms of addressing air pollution, the legislature favors business, especially the transport lobby.

Businesses are quick to defend themselves. Al Hendricks works for a company that manufactures energy-saving equipment. He says industry is less resistant to change than government.

“There’s people here who just don’t want to make changes and are either afraid to or just don’t want to rock the boat for whatever reason,” he said.

Hendricks says the government needs to offer incentives if it wants businesses to enforce environmental standards.

As upper-level professionals leave Hong Kong for jobs in less-polluted cities, businesses may be forced to change without government prodding. The demand for top talent across Asia is high.

It is a delicate balance. By imposing stricter standards, Hong Kong may lose business to nearby Chinese ports and cities, which have looser standards. But, by not cleaning up its air, Hong Kong is already losing professionals and businesses.

The Hong Kong government is working with the government of southern Guangdong province to reduce regional emissions.

Guangdong has agreed to ban the construction of new coal-fired or oil-fired power plants.

Still, even if Hong Kong addresses its air pollution, it can not force Guangdong to take the same measures.

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