Revision of air quality objectives long overdue

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am

In 2007 the environment was elevated to a separate policy bureau of its own in the government. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen had just been elected chief executive for a full five-year term and was putting his own stamp on the administration. This raised hopes that the government was getting serious about combating air pollution. Yet, less than four years later, the Ombudsman has agreed to investigate a complaint by Friends of the Earth that the administration is dragging its feet on revising the city's air quality objectives.

Soon after the new bureau was created, the government's Council for Sustainable Development launched a public consultation on pollution. There was a sense of urgency because the World Health Organisation had issued new air quality guidelines and Hong Kong had made little progress towards meeting even the outdated ones first issued in 1987. The government also commissioned a review by a consultant, which resulted in another public consultation on proposed new standards in 2009.

If there is a benchmark for real progress, it is the updated WHO guidelines. They indicate the acceptable levels of selected pollutants at which the risk to health is minimal. Countries unable to meet them quickly were urged to adopt interim targets. There was no get-out clause for a rich, advanced economy like Hong Kong's.

But the city's air-quality objectives remain unrevised since 1987. This may say something about the influence of special interest groups and other departments with different agendas on government policy. Not that the Environment Bureau has not had its share of successes - emissions caps on power plants, our biggest polluters, are evidence of that. Nonetheless, the delay adds to serious doubts about the government's resolve on air quality, with street- level pollution getting worse year by year. Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah should not wait for the Ombudsman's report before laying those doubts to rest by setting an early deadline for revising our air quality objectives and promising to stick to it.