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

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 10:23am

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.