Lai See
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 1:25am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 1:25am

Government's approach to pollution a breath of a fresh air


Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.

It has been heartening over the past 18 months to observe the sea change that has occurred in the government's attitude to dealing with the air quality. Under previous regimes it was almost treason to complain about Hong Kong's air quality, in the belief that it undermined Hong Kong's competitiveness. But we have a new administration which has brought "a breath of fresh air" to the issue, and now that the mainland government has been forced to do something about its appalling levels of pollution, attention is focused on the issue in Hong Kong like never before.

The University of Science and Technology has recently been hosting the Fourth International Workshop on Regional Air Quality Management in Rapidly Developing Economic Regions. At a press conference yesterday we learnt that the need for improving "capacity" in terms of expertise was discussed, along with increasing the speed with which the latest science on air pollution becomes incorporated into policymaking, and increasing know-how in managing and monitoring air quality. At the same time the public health aspect of air quality was stressed.

As a naive observer, Lai See's take on all this is that these issues are important. But it was known a long time ago - 10-15 years ago - that air pollution was bad for us. Public health officials knew this, the Environment Bureau knew this. But little was done about it because vested interests in the various industries were able to restrict progress. So it was politics that was holding back progress, not an absence of knowledge.

Undersecretary for the environment Christine Loh was at pains to stress that the government's blueprint for dealing with air quality, "A Clean Air Plan", was a co-publication by four bureaus: Environment, Transport and Housing, Food and Health, and Development, which was a first for the Hong Kong government. This does not come naturally to Hong Kong's civil service. As Nick Brooke, chairman of the Harbourfront Commission, observed recently, it took "seven years for Hong Kong to build a promenade".

Clean air is not only Environment's responsibility and co-operation across bureaus is vital if further progress is to be achieved. Also, if public health is the key issue in this, there should be someone with public health expertise in the Environmental Protection Bureau, as happens in environmental departments elsewhere. We need to have someone tell us exactly what effect this toxic soup is having on our health. Robert O'Keefe, vice-president of Boston-based Health Effects Institute, said yesterday that for healthy people in their 40s, short-term exposure to Hong Kong's air may not have much effect, but long-term exposure could shorten lives. How exactly are young children being affected? If this information was more widely known then people could assess the health risks more accurately.


A question of roots

A lot of people in this town get excited when Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man, says something about anything, but it was hard to discern anything newsworthy in the Cheung Kong chief's brief speech to staff at the group's annual dinner last week. Then again, maybe that was down to cultural insensitivity. Li has been snapping up assets in Australia and elsewhere overseas while seeking to offload them in Hong Kong. Could he have picked up some Aussie vernacular along the way? How else to explain his remark that "we are rooted in Hong Kong"?


Not many people know that

We are grateful to David Tang's website, to learn that the actor Michael Caine is not the originator of the expression, "not many people know that." The website allows anyone to pay a fee, thought to be US$1,000, to set the record straight and correct what they say are incorrect accounts of their activities which have been reported in the various media. So Caine says that, "For the past 40 years, I have always been associated with these words". But he claims that he never said them. "Peter Sellers said it when he impersonated my voice on his telephone answering machine". His impersonation was "This is Michael Caine, Peter Sellers is out. Not many people know that." Sellers, according to Caine, repeated this on the Michael Parkinson show. "I do not mind something clever being attributed to me, but I do mind something stupid that I did not say or do," an evidently miffed Caine writes.


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