Hong Kong finally has found its voice amid government inaction to clean our air and protect our health. And long may it last – at least until we have real action to address the pollution.
Newspapers this morning featured banner headlines on air pollution, including the SCMP’s “Clean-Air Targets Don’t measure Up” and then inside, “Gasp it’s Worse Than we Thought.”
Yesterday, the government said it would toughen its clean-air targets for the first time since 1987, but only marginally, and admitted they will still fall far short of World Health Organization standards.
And this four-and-a half-years after first engaging a consultant to review air quality objectives then launching a six-month public consultation that ended in late 2009. The environment secretary sat on the recommendations until yesterday and they were announced unchanged – by the consultation or time.
The new objectives impose tougher limits on the atmospheric concentration for seven pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead.
For the first time the city also will measure airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. These are more harmful than the larger particles currently measured.
The government apparently also has identified 22 measures to help achieve the new standards, which are to be introduced over a three-year period after 2014. This will allow infrastructure projects to proceed without delay.
Thus the government, in reality, will allow our air to be made even dirtier while it finishes some mammoth construction such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and a third runway at the airport.
Oh, and the steps to be taken apparently will extend the life expectancy of the average person in Hong Kong by one month.
Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau, was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying, “We have to understand that the ultimate WHO guidelines are a distant target” and pointing to regional pollution as the principal source of pollutants.
Yet 2007 research by Alexis Lau from the HK University of Science and Technology and Civic Exchange, “Relative Significance of Local Vs. Regional Sources: Hong Kong’s Air Pollution,” showed that 53 percent of the time the pollution that affects us most is locally generated by buses, trucks, shipping and power plants.
The basic, undisputed message for a long time has been, Hong Kong can do much to clean up its own air and improve the health of its residents.
Despite this, little has been done in recent years, despite urging from Clean Air Network, Civic Exchange, Friends of the Earth and many other environmental groups.
And herein lies the paradox: The HK government speaks and acts as though we are a developing nation, yet HK is one of the world’s richest cities. The government sits on reserves estimated at US$80 billion.
We are so rich in fact that last year the government announced that it would give a cash handout to each adult permanent resident (even those living abroad and those who patently did not need the extra money), of HK$6,000, or US$700. That massive handout cost the government HK$37.98 billion that certainly could have been used to better effect to clean our air.
Meanwhile, Roadside pollution levels reached a record high last year. The number of days that pollution was rated “high” hit 20%. That is five times more than in 2005. And, embarrassingly, the HK government is clearly playing catch up to Beijing, which in response to an online campaign earlier this month said it would provide hourly updates of PM2.5 measurements.
Clearly gone are the days when Beijing looked to Hong Kong for direction and innovation.
Meanwhile, the Civic Exchange yesterday said a revamped environmental index run by Hong Kong University researchers showed that air pollution here is more harmful than previously thought, costing HK$40 billion annually, up from previous estimates of HK$16 billion.
The number of premature deaths per year over the past five years should also be revised upward to 3,200 from 1,000, according to the Hedley Environmental Index. This, of course, is not information that the HK government is gathering.
The sad reality is that Hong Kong’s air has been deteriorating steadily over the past 20 years with almost no action by government to alter the trend. Pollution now poses a serious threat to public health and we should be angry, very angry.