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  • Jul 29, 2014
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Monitor
PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 2:47am

The sheer wilful stupidity of official inaction on pollution

It would be far cheaper for the government to tackle air pollution now, rather than in a few decades when the health costs will be incalculable

This week's Audit Commission report on the effectiveness of the Hong Kong government's pollution policy makes depressing reading.

That is not so much because of the government's repeated failure to meet even its own modest environmental targets, although that's dismal enough.

No, the real reason the report is so discouraging is the sheer wilful official stupidity that lies behind the government's failure.

Back in the late 1980s, the government introduced targets for the maximum permissible concentrations of harmful atmospheric pollutants and set up the Environmental Protection Department to enforce them.

A quarter of a century later those targets look feeble compared with the latest international standards.

For example, the World Health Organisation's air quality guidelines recommend an annual average PM10 - that's cancer-causing diesel soot to you and me - concentration of no more than 20 microgrammes per cubic metre.

The Hong Kong government's target is not even half as onerous; a generous 55 microgrammes per cubic metre.

But the government has never come close to meeting even its own undemanding objectives. For instance, last year the average roadside concentration of lung-shrivelling nitrogen dioxide was 50 per cent above the government's target, and three times the WHO's ceiling.

Officials cannot blame their failure on pollution from the mainland. Yes, smog drifts down from Guangdong. But pollution concentrations are inversely proportional to the cube of the distance from the source.

So although a factory 80 kilometres away in Dongguan might emit 100,000 times as many pollutants as that bus roaring past you in the street, the bus is doing twice as much damage to your health. In short, the harmful stuff is pumped out right here in Hong Kong.

Yet the government has consistently failed to tackle the problem. Despite 10 years of official promises to clear the air, there are still more than 50,000 trucks and buses with highly polluting pre-2001 diesel engines plying our roads.

Similarly, the government has failed to introduce new standards requiring shipping to use less polluting low-sulphur fuels.

Meanwhile, most of the electricity we consume is still generated locally by burning coal instead of natural gas, which is much cleaner.

Nor can officials blame their failure to do anything on a lack of resources.

At the last count the Hong Kong government was sitting on accumulated excess reserves of HK$1.3 trillion. That's more than three years' worth of government spending.

And this is where we encounter mind-boggling levels of stupidity. Asked what all this money is for, officials occasionally mutter something about needing the reserves to meet future health care liabilities as the city's population ages.

Yet the single most effective thing the government could do to ensure it can meet its future health care liabilities would be to cut local pollution levels.

According to estimates compiled by the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health, last year the city's high pollution levels were responsible for 8.7 million visits to the doctor, 24,500 hospital admissions and 3,600 deaths.

HKU estimates the total cost to Hong Kong's economy was more than HK$42 billion.

What the cumulative health effects of living in such a polluted environment will turn out to be over the coming decades is incalculable. But it is safe to assume that the annual cost will be many multiples of last year's figure, placing a massive strain on the city's economy.

As a result, on the principle that prevention is better than cure - and far better than palliative care - the government should do now what it ought to have done 10 years ago and spend as much as it takes to cut local pollution levels to meet, and even exceed, the WHO's most stringent guidelines.

In the short term, it should order all pre-2001 dirty diesel-engined vehicles off our roads. It should require all shipping to comply with the latest International Maritime Organisation emission standards, while insisting local vessels like ferries use only ultra-low-sulphur fuels. And it should compel Hong Kong's power companies to stop burning coal entirely, switching to natural gas as soon as possible.

In the longer term the government should draw up plans to phase out diesel-engined trucks and buses altogether.

Starting with the city's buses, it should replace them with electric-powered vehicles, moving the source of pollution away from street level where it does the most harm.

All this will be expensive. But Hong Kong can easily afford it. And in the long run the costs of doing nothing will be far higher.

Surely our officials aren't that stupid.

tom.holland@scmp.com

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rlustberg
The sad reality is that government officials work for the vested interests that demand lax pollution controls (the port operators, bus & ferry owners, developers, etc). Hong Kong residents have done a pretty good job of having their voices heard on a myriad of different causes but until they choose to demand accountability for the poison in the air nothing will be done about it. Even in a place like Mexico City, where I remember schools being shut down during winter to keep us indoor during pollution alerts, the government has tried to tackle some of the sources of pollution by taking cars of the streets (schemes now replicated all over the world through congestion charging), shutting down the most polluting industries in the valley, and working to upgrade buses and taxis. Though most polluting fighting schemes may be imperfect there is no excuse why Hong Kong, a supposed rich first world city, should fall so far behind the rest of the world. If the adults don't care about their health surely they should care about their children's health.
likingming
We could live a long life, longer than in any other places on earth if we could tackle pollution problems. But have we achieved the top longevity already ? A little bit pollution may help if we are bored !
lamchanhung
I strongly agreed with Tom's views.  Using the reserves to fight pollution would be the best way one I could think of to benefit HK and its people.  The money has to to spent anyway, either now or later with even heavier costs to tackle public health problems in addition.  The money spent would be far more rewarding than the multibillion dollar infrastructure projects that the government tried hard to push forward in recent years.  I would think of it as a sure win investment for HK.  Why can't they see the benefits?  What are they waiting for? Maybe it's us who are too stupid to understand
John Adams
Thanks, Tom, for yet another voice of common sense and rationality on this so very simple issue .
I am just lost for words at how stupidly and irresponsibly the govt has handled this issue in the past ( and still does so , at least for now) .
I hope that voices of reason like yours and Howard Winn's ( not to mention Friends of the Earth and similar organisations) will gradually chip away at the administration's concrete armour and finally we get something done
PS : @ Ianson : I agree completely about the concurrent noise issue. Standing at a zebra crossing on a main thoroughfare ( e.g. Hennessy Road) while a diesel bus speeds by on full throttle is similar to standing next to an aircraft taking off . It is certainly in the 120 dB range
captam
@"there are still more than 50,000 trucks and buses with highly polluting pre-2001 diesel engines plying our roads."
And don't forget the 450,000 congestion-causing private cars and vans, which are not even inspected for harmful emissions caused by defective exhaust systems. Road worthiness & emissions inspections are compulsory in Europe, many US states, Singapore , Japan etc. etc. when cars are only 2 to 3 years old. But why not in Hong Kong?......................... I suppose because the Government is fooling us we live in a "world class city".
lucifer
You are mistaken…my car must undergo a road worthiness and emissions tests every year before I can register it. These tests are done at licensed shops.
captam
No. Not until a car is (legally) "more than six years old" ( i.e. reaching the end of its seventh year on the roads) do they require a test in a 'licensed' shop ( nod,nod, wink, wink..... ) .
If your car is indeed inspected every year, you are obviously driving an old car. Time to turn it in and take the bus.
wwong888
I think our officials are still working with the developer tycoons on how they can maximize profits from providing a "solution" to the air pollution problem they created. Once they have the profit model worked it - perhaps a monopoly on electric bus imports, and so on - then we should see some solutions start to be proposed. Kleptocracy.
yentsun
Splendid facts. Apt concern. Thank you.
ianson
Electric buses instead of diesel not only deliver fantastic reductions in air pollution, they would immeasurably improve all our lives with their drastic reduction in noise. Buses now roar down our artificial canyons, reverberating thunderously into our living rooms. That, too, would be a thing of the past. And though the cost is billions, it would no doubt be far less than many of the major infrastructure projects fostered by our government that bring often questionable benefits. Get on with it.

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