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  • Aug 1, 2014
  • Updated: 10:55pm
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 10:23am

Powerful evidence Hong Kong officials just don't care about pollution

Although the mainland could be blamed for the periodic smogs, the city's government has failed in its measures to improve air quality


As the writer of the South China Morning Post’s Monitor column, Tom Holland attempts each day to make sense of the latest developments in business, finance and economic affairs in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Jumping into a taxi outside the South China Morning Post's Causeway Bay offices the other day, Monitor was struck by a wry observation from the cab driver.

Glancing at a crowd of shoppers crossing the road, many trundling suitcases behind them, he intoned: "Look at all the tourists. All the tourists, enjoying our pollution."

He had a point.

The Post's office is sited on one of the busiest road junctions in Causeway Bay. With heavy traffic constantly roaring past, tall buildings and an adjacent overpass blocking any breeze, the level of pollution has to be tasted to be believed.

I don't know why harassed sub-editors popping outside for a smoke bother taking their cigarettes. They could achieve the same effect just by standing on the corner and inhaling.

The government insists it is tackling the problem.

In January 2007, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen pledged to improve air quality within five years.

Assessing the government's performance can be tricky. The problem is that much of the atmospheric pollution that plagues the city rolls down from the mainland, especially at this time of year when the prevailing winds turn northerly.

Even if the government were to prohibit the burning of coal in the city's power stations (it hasn't) or ban ships in local waters from using dirty bunker fuel (it hasn't), it would still be unable to prevent us from being periodically blanketed with the clouds of smog emitted by the great industrial concentrations of the Pearl River Delta.

This inability gives our officials a convenient smokescreen to hide behind, because although it can't do much about pollution from the mainland, the government is far from powerless when it comes to tackling the homemade sort.

It hasn't even tried. We can tell this by looking at the figures for roadside pollution.

This is the really nasty stuff. 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 much pollutants as that bus roaring past you in the street, the bus is doing twice as much damage to your health.

Yet government efforts to reduce roadside emissions range from the farcical to absurd. It has told drivers of parked cars to turn off their engines, a rule even the police ignore. And it has banned smoking at bus stops; perhaps to ensure those waiting are poisoned more effectively by antique bus diesel engines.

As a result, roadside pollution continues to get worse.

Government efforts to reduce roadside emissions range from the farcical to absurd

The first chart below shows the number of hours each quarter street-level pollution - averaged across the three roadside monitoring stations - is classified as "low" or "medium", compared with the number of hours it is "high", "very high" or "severe".

Despite the government's claims of action, the number of hours pollution levels are acceptable - that is low or medium - is falling, while the amount of time pollution is at harmful levels - high, very high or severe - is on the increase.

The government can't blame the rise on pollution rolling down from the north.

The second chart compares roadside pollution levels with atmospheric readings at nearby stations. The red line shows the number of hours that roadside pollution is at harmful levels while atmospheric pollution is acceptable.

In other words, this chart measures hazardous pollution that we can be sure is homemade. As you can see, nearly seven years after Tsang's pledge to improve air quality, pollution is still getting worse.

At best, we must conclude government policy has been utterly ineffective. At worst, we might conjecture that officials actually like pollution.

Perhaps it recalls the comforting miasma of bureaucratic flatulence that pervades their hermetically sealed offices.



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This article is now closed to comments

"In January 2007, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen pledged to improve air quality within five years." Why are you citing any promise made by Bowtie? Isn't it obvious by now that this urchin turned bureaucrat was intent only on lining his own pockets, enjoying the luxury perks offered by government-biutt kissing tycoons, securing his retirement home from Bill Wong and forcing Hong Kong's trade representatives to seek out the Pope for him? How can you trust a Catholic who takes mass from a priest appointed by the Communist Party of China?
The HK Government's knowing neglect of it's citizens regarding air quality is an absolute disgrace! It is arguably comparable with the recent events in Syria of Bashar al-Assad attacking his own people, albeit that the HK Government is just doing it in a more insidious way.
No surprise that the scale of their attention and urgency to the matter at hand is non-existent - they fail to even publicly acknowledge that we have a serious air pollution issue due to their "own API index". Perhaps someone should tell them to look out the window, and that they too breathe the same air as the rest of us!
The Hong Kong Government has reneged on their duty of care to the Hong Kong people by knowingly keeping older diesel buses and trucks on our roads, and by happily welcoming filthy bunker fuel-burning ships and the associated emissions into the harbour. Then the fact that they "proudly announce" their negligence in the form of regressive legislation!??? ... well this is utter hubris and should enrage every person in HK to take a stand.
100% agree. I'm with Superman in portending the downfall of Hong Kong vs Chinese cities. At least China is clearly moving towards a cleaner environment and they will get there, thanks to political will. Hong Kong on the other hand, has with no encumbrances whatsoever, managed to sleep their Rip Van Winkle way through worsening air quality. ZERO shame. We don't deserve to be called a developed Asian city. With a budget surplus the government could at least TRY to dial down coal related pollution and instead support alternative energy, encourage and support electric vehicle use for public transport, and heavily tax the use of gas guzzling private cars while restricting their daily use... but nothing. My tax dollars instead go to help my less environmentally friendly brethren who don't seem to care that they and their ilk also breathe the same dirty air. Depressing.
Really? China is serious now? I checked the US PM 2.5 websites. Both Beijing and Chengdu air were hazardous. Doesn't square with your statement "China is clearly moving towards a cleaner environment." This is a statement you will find progressively more embarrassing over the next few years.
What city in the world is better suitable for electric cars? Most trips are relatively short in self-contained Hong Kong. Sure some pollution is generated at the source from this pollution source, but quite a bit less in aggregate, and most importantly as this article states, the pollution source is much further away from most people. That the Hong Kong government can't even do something simple like increasing the proportion of electrical vehicles in the city highlights the government's inabilities.
Not only would our small city seem to be ideal for more electric transport, but the scheme of control under which the two electric power companies operate would make it relatively easy to enlist the companies' support to provide the necessary infrastructure to support wider use of electric vehicles.


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