We've had enough of all this hot air
At long last, Hong Kong has new targets to aim for to improve air quality. They replace guidelines formulated 25 years ago and are closer to those recommended by the World Health Organisation in 2005. That they still fall short in several key areas and are the same as suggestions made after a public consultation in 2009 is disappointing, though. The government claims to be doing its best to reduce worsening pollution levels, but the slow pace of change suggests it is still putting development and the interests of big business before our health.
Officials have had many warnings about the importance of clean air. The dire health effects of prolonged exposure to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and small particulates from vehicles are well known. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have attempted to make the government's slew of measurements meaningful with the Hedley Environment Index, which aims to track the short-term impact of air pollution on society. A revised version, coinciding with the release of the new standards, estimated that an average of 3,200 premature deaths have occurred each year over the past five years, leading to an economic cost to Hong Kong of HK$40 billion.
Those figures are a substantial increase on the last estimates. There will be little chance of them falling if government measures continue to cut at the edges rather than the heart of the problem. The Environmental Protection Department's recent annual update of roadside pollution levels in our busiest districts showed record increases, with the Air Pollution Index being above the 'very high' mark of 100 for 20 per cent of the time. It was disappointing proof of the gap between authorities' rhetoric and pollution-fighting measures they had implemented.
There is more evidence that cleaning the air is not being given priority with the new air quality objectives. While the inclusion of fine respirable suspended particles of 2.5 microns is welcome and higher standards of between 10 per cent and 64 per cent have been set for seven pollutants, authorities are not legally bound to meet any of the targets. Four of the seven - sulphur dioxide, PM10, PM2.5 and ozone - fall short of the WHO's highest guidelines and it will not be until 2014 at the earliest that they take effect. Tellingly, Beijing unveiled new standards before Hong Kong and the requirement for the key pollutant nitrogen dioxide was set at a tougher level.
Hong Kong has the finances and resources to make our air healthy. Guidelines should be set at the highest level to ensure we strive as best we can to attain them. Only if people are put before the companies that produce the pollution can there be a possibility that the targets are met. Our government is failing us.