It's crystal clear

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2007, 12:00am

There is yet more confirmation that Hongkongers are extremely concerned about air pollution. First, a long-time resident is taking a case to court against the government for its failure to improve air quality. Second, a new survey shows high public dissatisfaction with air quality. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before someone became frustrated enough to take drastic action. Now we have it: a court is being asked to consider whether the government is derelict in its duty to clean the air.

It is not easy to jump through all the legal and procedural hoops to get such a case heard, but the point has been made that frustration is boiling over among members of our community.

Moreover, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce published its sustainable development index this week, showing that air pollution is a top concern among ordinary people. With data going back four years, the survey shows clearly that public dissatisfaction with pollution has grown. It is not good enough for the government to keep repeating that it is already doing everything it can. The public doesn't agree.

A fortnight ago, Civic Exchange published a report, by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, pointing a way forward. It showed that, for about half the days in the year, the dominant source of air pollution in Hong Kong was emissions from within the city itself. This does not mean that, on those days, there is no pollution coming from across the border, but that the dominant emissions affecting Hong Kong are our own.

Our new research does not say that Hong Kong can solve its air-quality problem through local measures alone. But it does imply that, if Hong Kong made a determined effort to clean up its own pollution, it would make a difference for at least half the days in a year. Roadside pollution affects a very large number of people, and thus is significant from a public-health perspective. Even air pollution from vessels needs to be addressed, since winds often carry filthy emissions to densely populated areas. Power plants are the single largest source of pollution. This is the area where the government has done the most over the years: now it needs to focus on emissions from vehicles and ships, as well. If I were the chief executive or the environment minister, I would use the new research results to go to the transport, marine, logistics and port-operation sectors to call for a clean-up. I would make it clear that my policy was health-driven, and that the goal is for Hong Kong to reduce air pollution to the extent that it no longer poses a threat to public health.

Before imposing regulations, I would call for voluntary measures leading to immediate improvements - such as using cleaner fuels for shipping and port operations, reducing the speed of ships in the harbour and reducing the number of vehicle trips where possible.

There would have to be a carrot-and-stick approach: for example, providing subsidies for truckers to replace their old, polluting vehicles - which the government is attempting to do - and making it clear that older trucks would be banned by a certain time. I would tell the economic sectors that the government's primary duty is to the people of Hong Kong, and that there is no choice but to make the fastest possible turnaround in air quality. The government clearly has public support on its side to do a lot more.

The government must also work with Guangdong to clean up regional pollution. An earlier science study showed that if you measured air pollution by mass concentration (rather than by time), then regional emissions contribute 60 to 70 per cent of the air samples collected in Hong Kong.

There is no contradiction between the two studies: the pollution is worse when Hong Kong's air is dominated by regional emissions, and less intense - but still high according to World Health Organisation guidelines - when the city's own emissions dominate. So, let's get the job done.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange