Whiff of rotten eggs about government pollution claim

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 May, 2010, 12:00am

Yesterday Monitor warned that Hong Kong is likely to see an influx of economic migrants from the United Kingdom following today's general election, as enterprising Brits flee their own high tax, low growth economy in search of the brighter economic opportunities on offer in Asia.

But there is one factor that may well persuade them to stay at home, or at least to go elsewhere: Hong Kong's sky-high levels of atmospheric pollution.

As a deterrent, our pollution levels have been even more than usually visible over the last week, with the city blanketed in a thick fug of noxious fumes, and the roadside atmospheric pollution index, or API, climbing above the 100 point 'very high level' on most days in Causeway Bay.

The government, of course, wants us to believe that it has got the smog under control.

Last month the Environmental Protection Department and the Guangdong provincial government announced that levels of major atmospheric pollutants have dropped steeply across the Pearl River Delta region since a 2006 agreement to tackle the problem.

Take sulphur dioxide, for example; a particularly nasty poison pumped into the atmosphere by burning dirty coal, fuel oil and diesel, and which causes all sorts of respiratory diseases.

According to the EPD, concentrations across the delta have fallen by 36 per cent since 2006.

'These reductions are attributable to implementation of enhanced emission reduction measures being implemented,' the government claimed.

Unfortunately there is a strong whiff of rotten eggs hanging over this assertion.

The first chart below shows the annual average concentration of sulphur dioxide in Hong Kong's atmosphere over the last five years. As you can see, there has been a significant reduction, but almost all of it took place last year.

Now, it's just about conceivable that official efforts to reduce emissions only kicked in during 2009 and that they proved resoundingly successful.

But it's far more likely that the drop in sulphur dioxide levels had nothing to do with government efforts but was simply a result of the economic slump that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

As export orders dried up, industrial production in southern China dropped steeply. That meant fewer pollutants belching from factory smokestacks into the skies above the delta region. It also meant less demand for electricity, which allowed generating companies to reduce output from their less efficient, more heavily polluting power plants.

At the same time, falling export shipments meant fewer diesel trucks barrelling south towards the delta's container ports, and fewer heavy bunker fuel-burning ships plying the region's waters.

As a result, it would have been a surprise if sulphur dioxide levels hadn't fallen last year.

If you're still not convinced, take a look at the second chart, which plots Hong Kong's economic output against average API readings recorded by the government's general monitoring stations. The relationship is clear: when Hong Kong's economic activity drops, so do the city's pollution levels.

The problem is that the reverse is true too. As the economy has rebounded over recent months, so the familiar fug of pollutants has descended again over the city.

So much for the government's 'enhanced emission reduction measures', which increasingly look like nothing more than a figment of the official imagination.

If the government really wanted to reduce pollution levels, it would press hard for the introduction of a cross-border cap and trade system for emissions encompassing the whole Pearl River Delta region.

Similar schemes have worked elsewhere. In the 1990s the United States halved its sulphur dioxide output and solved its acid rain problem thanks largely to emissions' trading.

Establishing the regulatory regime would be tricky, but not impossible. In a new paper Lin Feng and Jason Buhi of the City University of Hong Kong School of Law call for the establishment of a single cross-border regulator with the powers to set sulphur dioxide emission caps, oversee trading, monitor compliance and enforce stringent penalties in the case of infringements. 'Unfortunately,' they concede, 'the political will is lacking.'

That's bad news for Hong Kong's air quality, but if you don't like Brits I guess it could be a good thing.