Hong Kong: how to breathe easier

Hong Kong’s worsening air pollution causes four deaths a day on average. Improvements are needed, but how? Christine Loh says revised air quality standards, improved energy efficiency and greener ports are key.

Hong Kong’s worsening air quality has become an increasingly hot topic in the global press. Photographs of thick, grey smog have appeared on the front of news magazines, and Hong Kong’s desirability as a home for international executives has been thrown into question – news which came as a nasty shock to the city authorities. Recent polls show that air quality is a top concern among city residents; and last year Merill Lynch, the investment bank, warned that air quality in Hong Kong is now so poor that the city’s long-term competitiveness is under threat. Skilled professionals were already departing Hong Kong because of the heavy pollution, the bank said, and more will surely follow.

So, just how bad is Hong Kong’s air?

Street-level air quality regularly falls short of the government’s Air Quality Objectives (AQOs), and even further short of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines. For example, on 19 and 20 November 2006, roadside levels of respirable suspended particulates (RSPs – equivalent to PM10) exceeded the WHO guidelines by at least 300%. Since millions of people in Hong Kong live and work in close proximity to busy roads, this presents a major health risk to city residents. Studies by local public health experts have found that these roadside pollution levels are responsible for 90,000 hospital admissions and 2,800 premature deaths every year.

Declining regional air quality means visibility has also decreased dramatically. In 2004, low visibility occurred 18% of the time the highest on record, according to the Hong Kong observatory.

The most problematic air pollutants in the region, besides RSPs, are ozone and nitrogen dioxide. But what are the sources of this pollution?

Most of Hong Kong’s power is generated by burning coal. In fact, electricity generation produces half of Hong Kong’s total emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulates, and 92% of its total sulphur dioxide emissions. Most local power stations do not yet have flue gas desulphurisation, although equipment is being installed and the government has required that all new generation capacity should come from natural gas.

Hong Kong’s roads are also the most crowded in the world, with almost 280 vehicles for every kilometre of road. The city’s vehicle fleet is dominated by heavily polluting, ageing goods vehicles, most of which run between the city and the Pearl River Delta. Diesel commercial vehicles are responsible 90% of RSPs and 80% of nitrogen dioxide emissions from the entire road transport sector, despite making up only 23% of the vehicle fleet. Double-decker diesel buses and a steadily growing fleet of private cars have also added to congestion and pollution.

Recent studies have shown that although emissions from marine vessels make up a relatively small proportion of total emissions, they affect dense population centres on the Kowloon peninsula, where container terminals are located, and so have a significant public health impact. Bunker fuel is highly polluting, and these terminals function 24 hours a day.

But Hong Kong’s air quality not only suffers from severe local air pollution generated by the city itself, but also regional smog – pollution that arises from the industry of the Pearl River Delta area.

The city’s air has been greatly affected by the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of south China’s Pearl River Delta region. The delta area is about the size of the San Francisco Bay Area, and while it is not a geographically large area, it is where Hong Kong’s light industrial manufacturing relocated to in the 1980s, as Hong Kong capital fed China’s mighty export production capabilities. Even though China now has other export production hubs, Guangdong Province still generates about 30% of China’s total annual export earnings.

Electricity generation, energy-intensive industry and a rapidly growing fleet of vehicles are all major sources of emissions in the Pearl River Delta region. The power-generating capacity of Guangdong province is still made up in large part by highly polluting and inefficient small capacity units, although some of these are being phased out. Shortages in the power supply to industry also mean that many factories often run their own generators, which burn low quality fuels. While the authorities have issued warnings and fines, as well as pushing more polluting businesses to upgrade or relocate, the air quality in the Pearl River Delta is still very poor.

A regional emissions inventory conducted around 10 years ago showed that about 80% of air pollutants have their source across the border in the Pearl River Delta region, while 20% are emitted by Hong Kong. This has led many people in Hong Kong to feel that its pollution is outside their jurisdiction, and that local efforts would not be enough to turn things round – an impression that has had a debilitating effect on pollution control efforts.

But the most recent research (to be published in March 2007 by Civic Exchange) shows that by examining data from regional and local monitoring stations and combining it with meteorological information, an interesting picture emerges. Controlling emissions from marine and transportation sources in Hong Kong more stringently could in fact have a substantial impact on the city’s public health. Hopefully this new research will push the Hong Kong government to take much more aggressive action in local pollution control. But what should this involve?

One crucial step would be to replace Hong Kong’s outdated AQOs. These air quality standards were set in 1987, and have not since been revised. There is now growing pressure for Hong Kong to adopt the WHO global standards, which better reflect current knowledge of pollution’s effects on health. But the government has shown reluctance to adopt the WHO standards for fear that Hong Kong’s air quality will be shown to fall short of the guidelines, since the city’s pollution levels already exceed the weaker AQOs. Experts have criticised the government for misapplying air quality standards by regarding them as nothing more than administrative guidelines, when they are in fact set to protect public health.

Pollution is a major cause of illness in Hong Kong. Every year, pollution is the cause of around 1,600 deaths (four per day), 64,200 hospital admissions (176 per day) and 6,811,960 doctor visits (18,600 per day). These serious health effects result in annual community losses of over HK$2 billion (around US$255 million) in direct health care costs and productivity losses, and HK$19 billion (around US$2.5 billion) in further costs arising from pain, suffering and personal loss.

Apart from tightening the AQOs, other measures Hong Kong needs to take include:

– Improving energy efficiency: Hong Kong’s energy-efficiency policy lags behind most developed countries. It should make energy-efficiency standards mandatory for buildings and appliances. Research shows that 30% of Hong Kong’s total electricity could be saved if all commercial buildings adopted the standards set out in the Hong Kong Building Environmental Assessment Method (HKBEAM) – a local building standard which is now voluntary.

– Getting highly-polluting pre-Euro and Euro I commercial vehicles off the road: the government is providing a grant to owners in order to encourage them to replace these cars with Euro IV vehicles. But this should be combined with road usage measures, such as banning certain types of vehicles from urban areas during the daytime.

– Implementing a “green ports” policy: Hong Kong should aggressively reduce emissions arising from port operations, as well as the transportation logistics sector involved in export manufacturing.

– Working with Guangdong province: Hong Kong must address regional air quality issues and build capacity for a regional air monitoring framework for the future.

Christine Loh is the CEO of Civic Exchange

Homepage photo by Tony Oxborrow