Choking on success

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am

Even environment minister Edward Yau Tang-wah would not dispute that the clear blue skies over Hong Kong in July told only part of the story about the city's air quality. Visibility was superb that month and the air pollution index fell to as low as 10 at the air quality monitoring station on Tap Mun.

But two months later, the blue sky turned grey as haze returned and spread across the whole Pearl River Delta region.

Although few would disagree that the stark contrast was linked to seasonal weather change, not everyone believes that's the sole explanation for the bad air.

Officials were quick to take credit for the blue skies of July, citing what they said was the effectiveness of existing emission control measures. Thanks to the conversion of taxis and minibuses to LPG and the introduction of ultra-low sulfur diesel and tighter vehicle emission standards, annual average concentration levels of nitrogen oxides and particulates at the roadside have fallen by 19 per cent and 13 per cent respectively in the past eight years.

However, their critics said an overemphasis on the role of weather in determining air quality showed the need for tougher measures. The weather factor also removed the incentive for the public to take part in a clean up.

Sceptics said the blue skies were related to regional pollution factors and separate from the issue of clean air at the roadside, which is determined more by transport and the urban landscape.

'The haze obscuring the blue sky is more a visual and image problem and they should be tackled. But a real improvement in air quality should start from the roadside [as it] has the biggest impact on people's health,' said Professor Alexis Lau Kai-hon, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Science and Technology.

Despite a fall in the average concentration of pollutants at the roadside, the roadside air pollution index exceeded 100 on 57 days last year.

The number was the second highest in eight years, after 2004, and meant the public was exposed to extremely bad air more often.

The situation was even more worrying because what constitutes a low level of pollution can still be harmful to health, since the air quality objectives adopted by Hong Kong 20 years ago are far more lax than the new World Health Organisation guidelines.

The mean particulate level in Hong Kong in 2005 was nearly twice that of Los Angeles and London, according to a report released by think-tank Civic Exchange.

These concerns were not entirely ignored by the administration, which has been facing mounting calls from the international business community to clean up air amid warnings that bad air would deter investors and skilled workers from coming to the city.

'InvestHK should stop saying we are still attracting talent while Beijing and Shanghai are more polluted than us. Instead, we should think that investment in Hong Kong might be doubled if we had clean air,' said Alan Seigrist, chairman of the environment committee of the American Chamber of Commerce.

Against this backdrop, the administration launched an 18-month review of air quality objectives last year and in April approved a HK$3.2 billion scheme to phase out old diesel vehicles and introduce tax concessions for environmentally friendly private cars.

In tackling the largest single sources of pollution, emission caps were imposed on power companies, which are also facing tougher measures under the new regulatory regime in negotiation now.

These efforts were welcomed, but they are also seen as piecemeal as impatience grows over the pace of change. The length of the air quality objectives review was criticised as excessive, and there was no deadline set to outlaw dirty diesel vehicles under the scheme.

In what was seen as a loophole, nothing was done to address the 2,000 franchised buses still running that barely complied with the earliest and least stringent Euro emission standards.

'I won't say we need drastic measures, but the government needs to think out of the box, otherwise we might just end up staying where we are,' said Lam Kin-che, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Environment.

Critics contend that the city's options are far from exhausted. They say what's lacking is the leadership to take on the challenges.

Civic Exchange last year published an air management plan for the city that listed more than 40 measures with an implementation schedule. It touched on areas where the administration has done nothing, including introducing further controls on emissions from the container port.

Earlier, the think-tank also issued a report outlining lessons that could be learned from Los Angeles, which led the world with some of the most stringent air quality standards, and from London, which has become a role model for congestion charging.

'Political leadership and multi-stakeholder collaboration were critical to the successes in London and LA. There is an urgent need to devise a comprehensive air quality management plan and to bring various stakeholders together to make it work,' said Civic Exchange head Christine Loh Kung-wai.

Her call was echoed by Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of Friends of the Earth, who said Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen should show his political determination by bringing in a tough agreement with the power companies that tied permitted profit levels to emissions levels.

'If the government fails to show political determination in fighting air pollution, the business sector will also become slack in doing its bit,' Mr Lau said.

Power generation remains the biggest stationary source of air pollution in the city, accounting for 90 per cent of total sulphur dioxide emissions. Cleaning it up is crucial to meeting a cross-border agreement with Guangdong to cut emissions of four pollutants in the Pearl River Delta region by 20 per cent, to 55 per cent of 1997 levels, by 2010.

Although an interim review of the region's progress is being carried out, Hong Kong has reported it is on track to slash key pollutants by 15 per cent to 36 per cent - except sulphur dioxide, which rose by 31 per cent in the eight years to 2005.

There was no doubt that political leadership played a key role, but a proper strategy was equally important when it came to gaining public support for controversial policies, said Professor Lau.

Last year, Mr Tsang launched the Action Blue Sky campaign to encourage the public to help improve air quality with measures such as switching off idling engines, dressing down to reduce the need for air conditioning and cutting electricity consumption.

While it is difficult to measure the success of the campaign, some say Mr Tsang should repackage it, starting off by educating the public about the adverse health impact of bad air.

'The most important matter for the chief executive now is to tell the public clearly about the link between poor health and bad air,' Professor Lau said.

'The public should be told about the hidden price they have to pay for breathing in polluted air. Once the public is told about this, it will become easier for officials to push forward bolder, tougher measures.'

Measures such as electronic road pricing, a smog alert and action plan and energy demand management are the themes around which the Council for Sustainable Development Council has sought to build a community consensus through a series of public engagements.

Otto Poon Lok-to, chairman of the council's strategy committee, said road pricing was worth considering. But he said its impact might be confined to private cars rather than other commercial vehicles such as buses and taxis, which could pass the charge on to passengers.

He said more should be done to tackle roadside pollution and that the discussion should be expanded to cover potentially controversial areas.

'We can discuss whether it is possible to pay directly to franchised bus companies to subsidise a switch to Euro IV [emission standards]. We can also talk over which parties should bear the cost and how much they should share,' he said.

Ng Cho-nam, a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment, said that unless any road charge was high enough to deter a sufficient number of drivers from getting into their cars, it would have a limited impact on the city's air quality.

Dr Ng said the government should take an alternative approach to addressing the so-called street- canyon and building-wall effect that trapped pollutants from transport sources within the city.

As far as emissions from these sources was concerned, there was always a limit to technology-driven solutions such as cleaner fuel and vehicles that might take time to develop and become commercially viable, he said.

'The Environmental Protection Department really did a lot over the past years and we have paid a lot to subsidise car owners to go greener,' he said. 'But why is it that we haven't got cleaner air so far?

'The problem is that our urban landscape is gradually deteriorating, with more street canyons created by developments that will last for decades.'

Dr Ng said high-rise buildings didn't necessarily block air circulation if they could provide ventilation corridors, and that it was crucial for the government to set out clear policies and guidelines on design for air movement and ensure all urban renewal projects adhered to them.

Professor Lau also said it was time for the administration to shift the focus from tail-pipe emissions of individual vehicles, which were relatively straightforward, to better transport planning and traffic management.

Although it was an established policy that rail was the backbone of public transport, he found the local rail network underdeveloped and dwarfed by those of other big cities such as London.

Mr Seigrist said that better bus fleet management was also needed, and that the administration should raise the toll on the central harbour crossing to relieve congestion and pollution.

Mr Seigrist said that no matter what the measures were, the chief executive had to spell out a unified environmental plan so that everyone could work towards common goals.

'Since we do not have such a unified plan, many people are pointing the finger in different directions,' he said.

Reach for the sky

Highest reading recorded on Hong Kong' air pollution index (Tung Chung, September 2004) 201

Highest and lowest API readings so far this year 154

7 (Central and Western, August 8) (Tap Mun, May 31)

Number of hours with reduced visibility in the first eight months of 2007 630

Number of days last year with API reading above 100 57

Sulfur dioxide emission change between 1997 and 2005 up 31%

What the experts say the chief executive should do

1 Tell the public clearly about links between air quality and health to convince them to adopt tougher measures (Alexis Lau Kai-hon, atmospheric scientist from the University of Science and Technology)

2 Set out clear policies and guidelines to address the city's canyon and building wall effects (Ng Cho-nam, member of Advisory Council on Environment)

3 Introduce a tough scheme to regulate power plant emissions, outlaw old diesel vehicles and upgrade franchised bus fleets (Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of Friends of the Earth)

4 Speed up ongoing measures and schemes such as the air quality objective review (Otto Poon Lok-to, member of Council for Sustainable Development)

5 Spell out a comprehensive environmental policy and help factories across the border cut emissions (Alan Seigrist, chairman of the environment committee of American Chamber of Commerce)