In recent years, pollutant levels in Hong Kong have fallen by approximately 30%. However, public health is still not sufficiently protected.
Hong Kong citizens constantly find themselves along the side of roads, but the roadside air quality is never up to standard: according to the “2016 Hong Kong Annual Air Quality Statistical Summary” that was published by the government, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) per hour in Causeway Bay exceeded the limit 134 times; over 100 more than the legal allowance of 18. The standard is set and monitoring is completed, but the results are unacceptable. Moreover, the resulting data is only for reference – no further action is conceived. At least these numbers imply that we are all better off further away from the roadside.
The air quality is below standard, yet no government departments need to bear responsibility. The government is slow in finding a solution to air pollution. Meanwhile, in England when the air quality does not comply with regulations, the British government is liable to a fine.
Since 2010, NO2 concentration in England has continually failed to meet EU targets. According to the annual report released by the European Environmental Protection Agency in 2016, England is the most heavily NO2 polluted country amongst their European peers, causing 11,490 deaths in 2013. In October 2016, ClientEarth, a British non-profit environmental law organisation, successfully prosecuted the British government for the second time, accusing them of being unable to control the air quality to meet EU and British legal standards, after winning their first court case in 2015. Consequently, the British government must submit a plan to tackle roadside air pollution before April 2017, and implement it as soon as possible. Additionally, in February of this year, the EU issued their final ultimatum to the British government, demanding them to show how they plan to proceed on the problem of excessive NO2 within 2 months, or otherwise face a public hearing with a chance of an immense fine. The government subsequently published a draft, including the funding of car owners to eliminate their high-emission vehicles, as well as establishing “clean air” zones that limits the amount of vehicles allowed to enter the area, effective from July this year. The air quality in England is subject to legal supervision, but what about in Hong Kong? Here, we only have the “Air Pollution Control Ordinance”, which cannot be brought to court. Without the power of legislation to deal with pollutant offences, we can only anticipate for the government’s conscience and determination.
Speaking of determination, The British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in April of her steadfast efforts in preventing continued air quality deterioration. She announced that air pollution is the fourth killer in the UK, after cancer, obesity and heart disease, and agreed that one of the reasons of the severity of air pollution was because of a long overdue failure in achieving NO2 targets, mainly due to vehicle emissions. This type of determination is no longer purely a moral responsibility to protect the environment, but also one related to economic factors: every year around 50,000 Britons suffer from premature death due to air pollution, resulting in medical expenses totalling £20 billion. While in Hong Kong, there were 1,686 premature deaths from air pollution, directly impacting economic losses of up to HK$21.6 billion, according to the Hedley Environmental Index by The University of Hong Kong (HKU). In addition, as one of the reports by the HKU School of Public Health points out, in the year of 2000, there were 485 premature deaths due to NO2, requiring over HK$10 million medical expenses. That year, the NO2 annual average was 58.3 ug/m3, and last year, 4 in 18 districts exceeded that number; including Kwai Chung, Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok, with a total of 11 districts more that were unable to reach the safety level of 40 ug/m3.
If air quality does not improve, not only is it a failure in our moral responsibility, but also a negative impact on our health, and a burden of continued monetary expense. Hong Kong is in desperate need for a dynamic air improvement program, which will also propose a more substantial accountability system that answers; if targets are not met, who will be responsible? Let’s look at the authors behind the “A Clean Air Plan for Hong Kong” that was released in 2013, concerning the improvement of air quality. The cover specifies that the plan was developed by the Environmental Protection Department, but air does not exist independently; it interconnects many factors such as transportation and urban planning, etc. Therefore, the plan should also be the collaborative preparation of the Transport Department, Food and Health Bureau and Development Bureau. And where compliance is not met, it is the joint responsibility of these four departments. After four years, it is time to start reviewing the effectiveness of each bureau’s work. In reviewing the original plan in attempt to find a scale of measurement, we are unable to find what tasks each council had to undertake in order to improve air quality. A complete and effective “clean air plan” should not be a game of wordplay or meaningless statements of ideals. First and foremost, the plan should clearly state the objectives of each bureau, and only then can real achievement occur in cross-sector cooperation. With this, along with a comprehensive review system, each bureau can actively move closer towards their goal.