Mike Kilburn fears air pollution in Hong Kong could get even worse, given the latest evidence that clean-up measures are proving ineffective and officials are failing in their duty to protect public health.
This month marks a major watershed for air quality in Hong Kong. At the beginning of the month, the Environmental Protection Department said that roadside pollution last year was the worst on record. At the same time, Clean Air Network presented a table from the China Statistical Yearbook 2011 ranking Hong Kong’s nitrogen dioxide levels (a key indicator of roadside pollution) 31st out of 32 major cities in China – only Urumqi was worse. This is especially embarrassing considering that Hong Kong has a service-based economy with very little industry – and correspondingly fewer sources of pollution than any other city on the list. Adding insult to injury, the mainland pre-empted the long-delayed release of Hong Kong’s air quality objectives by announcing its own. This was embarrassing for Hong Kong officials who, by dithering for two years since consulting the public on a set of draft objectives, have forfeited Hong Kong’s position as the pacesetter for introducing tougher air quality standards in China. The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s air quality objectives are very similar to those proposed by Hong Kong, but they differ in three important aspects. First, the ministry has proposed an additional 24-hour limit for nitrogen dioxide of 80 micrograms per cubic metre that is not included in Hong Kong’s objectives. This means the mainland’s standards for this key pollutant are even tougher than Hong Kong’s. Second, by publishing a set of targets that most, if not all, major cities will take years to achieve, the ministry has signalled its understanding of the powerful role targets can play in driving down pollution – something our officials have yet to grasp. In a radio interview broadcast last year, Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah insisted that “apart from setting a target, you have to have a way to achieve it”. As mainland leaders have shown, the target can certainly precede the plan for attainment, and two years were lost while Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s administration tried to figure out how to meet the air quality objectives it proposed in 2009. Third, even though concentrations of respirable suspended particles of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5) in many mainland cities are more than double those in Hong Kong, the ministry has set the standard for PM2.5 at the same level as Hong Kong’s – 35 micrograms. As with the target for nitrogen dioxide, this sends a strong message that protecting public health has been accorded a high priority by Beijing. Conversely, in a May 2011 meeting of the Legislative Council, frustrated lawmakers suggested that the government had not released the new air quality objectives because it feared that major infrastructure projects may fail to meet the new standard. In his response, Tsang appeared to confirm this view: “We must carefully assess the economic and social impacts of any new air quality objectives on Hong Kong. It is only by doing so that we can put forward any long-term and firmly established air quality objectives that are appropriate to all works projects and economic development.” But there is clear evidence that Hong Kong’s poor air quality is now threatening economic health as well as the well-being of the public. Last September, the Airport Authority released a report expressing concern that high nitrogen dioxide emissions from aircraft using a third runway would create difficulties in securing approvals under the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, and could not legally go ahead. In a similar vein, it was concerns about the health impacts of added traffic on the proposed bridge to Macau and Zhuhai that provoked a judicial review that held up the project. This week, the government acted. On Tuesday, Yau announced that new air quality objectives for Hong Kong had been approved by the Executive Council and would become law in 2014. These are identical to the objectives put out for public consultation in 2009, raising serious questions about what has been achieved by the two-year delay. The government’s press release also included a rather cryptic statement referring to new infrastructure projects, saying that “all government projects for which environmental impact assessment studies have not yet commenced would endeavour to adopt the proposed new air quality objectives as the benchmark”. Environmental assessments follow a statutory process that permits approval of projects if their emissions do not exceed the current air standards. The ordinance makes no allowance to “endeavour” to adopt a new standard, and the director of environmental protection would very swiftly find herself back in court were she to require proponents to meet air quality objectives that were yet to be legally adopted. Hence, regrettably, those fine-sounding words are essentially hollow. Meanwhile, the need to address air pollution grows more urgent. The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health and Civic Exchange have launched a revised version of the Hedley Environmental Index. The refined calculations of health impacts indicate that an average of 3,200 premature deaths have occurred each year over the past five years, up from the previous estimate of 1,000 deaths per year. So what can we conclude? In short, our air quality can get worse, and officials are fudging the issue rather than making it better. The clean-up measures introduced to reduce pollution are failing in key areas – especially at the roadside. The consequences for our health are far worse than we imagined. The officials whose job it is to improve air quality do not understand the key tools of their trade, and appear more concerned with perpetuating development than protecting public health. It is hardly surprising that Hong Kong has lost its position as the environmental leader in China. Mike Kilburn is head of environmental strategy for public policy think tank Civic Exchange