No cause to breathe easier: experts
Hong Kong will still lag international standards even after it approves tougher air quality objectives, environmental groups say, while experts believe the city will struggle to meet some of the new targets.
Announcing the new rules yesterday, Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said standards for levels of lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide would match the highest level set down by the World Health Organisation. Standards for other pollutants will be less stringent, based on lower-level WHO targets.
Green activists said Hong Kong's standards would not exactly match those set by the WHO, and argued that lead and carbon dioxide were of little relevance as they were not a main source of pollution in the city.
Greenpeace campaigner Prentice Koo Wai-muk said the installation of desulphurisation systems at electricity stations had already led to significant falls in sulphur dioxide levels.
And Mike Kilburn, head of environmental strategy at think tank Civic Exchange, warned that the city would struggle to meet its new standards for nitrogen dioxide.
Based on the proposed air quality objectives and data from last year, non-profit group Clean Air Network found that there would be at least 600 times a year when hourly roadside levels of nitrogen dioxide at Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok exceeded the new benchmark.
Network chief executive Helen Choy said air quality in urban areas would fail to hit the targets every day if no improvements were made.
And Choy said the city would fail to hit its new target for fine respirable particulates (PM2.5) on 11 days each year in Central and Western district, even though the benchmark of 75 micrograms every 24 hours fell well short of the WHO's highest standard.
If the WHO standard of 25 micrograms every 24 hours was adopted Hong Kong would miss its target on 263 days in the year.
Even developing countries such as India and Bangladesh set tougher PM2.5 standards, Choy said. PM2.5, which like nitrogen dioxide comes mostly from vehicle emissions, can penetrate the respiratory system and cause irreparable lung damage.
'We welcome the inclusion of PM2.5 [in the objectives], but we don't accept the proposed level,' Choy said.
And, while governments elsewhere in the world have been taken to court for failing to meet air quality standards, Dr Lai Hak-kan, honorary assistant professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong, said Yau's proposals would not set binding standards for the government.
Yau defended the much less stringent criteria the city will adopt by saying that European countries had not adopted the WHO standards, and Hong Kong had to take a 'practical approach'. The WHO says that by adopting its standards on air pollution, countries and territories can protect most of their citizens from the health effects of poor air quality.
Hong Kong's ranking among 566 cities in the world for PM2.5, according to green group Friends of the Earth