HK Government pulls a slow one on air pollution

Saturday, January 21st, 2012
Hong Kong roadside pollution

It was a bad week for those hoping Hong Kong's air quality is going to improve anytime soon. On Tuesday the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, to give its full title, announced that sometime between April this year and March next year, it intends to move forward with legislation to update its air quality objectives (AQOs) by 2014 and put 22 improvement measures in place.

While this is a promise that some reasonable progress will be at last be made, many observers – myself included – are flabbergasted that it has been such a long time coming.

Hong Kong's current AQOs are 25 years old and badly out of sync with the air quality guidelines published by the World Health Organization (WHO). Nonetheless, and according to the Government's own monitoring, roadside air pollution exceeded current targets a record 20 percent of the time in 2011, compared to two percent in 2005.

Independent monitoring carried out in 2010 by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology using a mobile air pollution measurement van in all 18 districts of Hong Kong found roadside pollution in many places is a lot worse than the government's monitoring at three fixed locations reveals. Emissions from vehicles – particularly aging diesel-powered buses and trucks, and poorly maintained minibuses and taxis – are the main cause of Hong Kong's high and still rising levels of NO2 which gets trapped in poorly-ventilated “street canyons”.

The current AQOs do not cover fine particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5), which has the most adverse heath impact. However, Friends of the Earth has pointed out that the average concentration PM2.5 in Hong Kong's air during 2010 would put in 559th place in the WHO ranking of 566 cities' PM2.5 levels.

According to the Headley Environmental Index – which measures the cost of Hong Kong's air pollution and is run by the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health – the tangible cost of health-care and lost productivity in 2011 was HKD3.89 billion (USD499 million), while the total economic loss was estimated to be HKD42.45 billion (USD5.44 billion). It says the health effects of Hong Kong's air pollution just last month included 311 premature deaths, 17,385 hospital bed days and 785,865 visits to doctors.

Under review

The process of reviewing the current AQOs was initiated in 2006 with contract tendering for a consultant to look at air quality standards and recommend a long-term air quality strategy for Hong Kong. Ove Arup & Partners was given the job and its final report was delivered in July 2009. Based on this the government launched an extensive public consultation exercise which was completed at the end of November 2009.

Essentially what has been put forward is that of Hong Kong's set of seven new AQOs (including PM2.5), the WHO's full standards be adopted for three with the rest set at what the WHO calls interim target levels. The stated aim is to use these as a staging point toward achieving the full WHO standard in the longer term and the government says it wants to review the AQOs every five years.

The reason given for not adopting the full set of WHO guidelines from the outset was that much of Hong Kong's air pollution originates across the border in China and this would take quite some time to bring under control. In the public consultation government also proposed a set of 19 “phase one” emission control measures (now expanded to 22) to help meet the proposed AQOs.

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