Challenge leaves us all out of breath
The immensity of the challenge facing environmental officials responsible for cleaning the city's air has been exposed by a study which has matched their latest targets with last year's air quality figures.
The worst discrepancy is for nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant generated mainly by vehicles.
The targets for 2014 announced by the Environment Bureau on Tuesday, which are not legally enforceable, allow only 18 days of levels exceeding the maximum for this pollutant.
But if last year's emissions are repeated, the levels will be in excess for 241 days of the year. Concentrations of respirable particulate matter at least 10 microns wide, or PM10, would exceed the limit by 35 days, but the proposed target is only nine days.
The figures, compiled by the University of Hong Kong's school of public health for the South China Morning Post, came a day after the bureau said it would toughen the city's air quality objectives in 2014.
The new objectives, updating targets formulated in 1987, lay down limits for seven pollutants that are between 10 per cent and 64 per cent more stringent than existing ones.
Critics have slammed officials for the delay in adopting the new objectives and aiming low, as targets for four of the seven pollutants - sulphur dioxide, PM10, PM2.5 and ozone - would be based only on the World Health Organisation's interim, rather than ultimate, targets.
But officials said targets needed to be practical, as regional pollution - from sources outside Hong Kong's borders - was beyond its control.
Dr Lai Hak-kan from the University of Hong Kong, who applied the 2011 figures to 2014's standards, said the WHO suggested no allowances be made at all for most pollutants.
The exception was a three-day allowance for particulate matter, as these levels could be increased by typhoons and dust storms. But Lai said: 'Our government sets an even higher nine days for particulate matter, PM10 and PM2.5 [the finest category of particulates, at 2.5 microns].
'Nine days of heavy pollution can cost many lives, especially for people with chronic illnesses. An even bigger problem is that no matter how many days the pollution goes over the limit, the government will, like in the past, face no legal consequences.'
Although the new targets will become statutory requirements after amendments to the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, there will be few legal consequences of a breach, except for infrastructure or construction projects.
When applying for a government work permit for such projects, the owners will have to ensure their works do not worsen the air quality by more than the legal limits.
According to the Clean Air Network, US citizens can take out a civil action against the Environmental Protection Agency if air quality standards are not satisfactory.
And the European Union can withhold funds from regional development projects if there is a breach of air quality standards. But Helen Choy Shuk-yi, general manager of Clean Air Network, said: 'The air quality objectives will be meaningless if officials can't tell us how legally binding they are. Will infrastructure works have to stop if the objectives are not met? Officials are only diverting our attention when they give us those figures.'
A spokeswoman for the Environment Bureau did not respond when asked about any consequences for a breach of the tougher standards.
Secretary for Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah said yesterday that the government would continue to implement the 22 measures identified to improve air quality.
But he reiterated that those measures would come with a cost. 'We will have to share the costs,' he said. 'By reducing emissions from power plants and making them switch to [natural gas], there may be a 20 per cent increase in electricity tariffs.'
By phasing out old buses with dirty engines, transport fees could rise by 15 to 20 per cent, he added.
Thomas Choi Ka-man, senior environmental officer from Friends of the Earth, criticised the secretary for highlighting just the costs and not the benefits to public health.