Even Hong Kong's best efforts may not help to clear our air

City's anti-pollution campaign will not end problem as long as the mainland continues to burn coal to satisfy its power demand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 12:46am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 8:55am

Christine Loh Kung-wai, Hong Kong's campaigning Under Secretary for the Environment, has promised us that she will deliver "drastic improvements" in the city's air quality over the next five years.

Yesterday, she pledged to get the very worst-polluting buses and trucks - those that do the most harm to our health - off Hong Kong's streets in the next two years. She also plans to push through legislation forcing ships using Hong Kong's port to switch from burning dirty bunker oil to cleaner, less polluting fuels.

Loh's aims are highly commendable. If she can achieve them, she will deserve high praise indeed.

Alas, however, it is an unfortunate irony that even if Loh does meet her objectives, her success may not be immediately detectable in the form of better pollution-free visibility in Hong Kong's atmosphere.

As China continues to develop, its demand for power will only increase

Although much of the nasty stuff that poisons us the most is indeed pumped out here in our streets, Hong Kong also suffers from what we might call ambient pollution: the murky haze that rolls down from the great mainland industrial concentrations of the Pearl River Delta.

And when the wind's in the north, that smog is going to keep on coming, whatever Hong Kong does.

Unfortunately, all the Beijing government's efforts to encourage mainland officials to go green, all the incentives it gives to clean-energy investment, and all the subsidies it offers to zero-emission electric vehicles will make little difference. In fact, in the case of electric vehicles, generous subsidies could actually make the pollution worse.

The problem is the mainland's main source of energy is coal - and that's simply not going to change in the foreseeable future.

Last year, the country generated just 2 per cent of its electricity from wind energy, 2 per cent from nuclear power, 15 per cent from hydroelectric stations, including the giant Three Gorges project, and 80 per cent the old-fashioned way by burning coal.

It is true that Beijing has invested heavily in clean-energy sources like solar and wind in recent years. But the economy's hunger for electricity has grown so fast (see the first chart) that all that clean-energy investment has made little impact on the country's energy mix. Hundreds of billions of yuan in investment have only been enough to maintain the share of clean-energy sources in the mainland's overall electricity output.

Yet despite heavy investment and the rapid growth in electricity production, which has catapulted the mainland into first place as the world's biggest power generator, it remains energy-poor.

Last year, the country generated just 3.9 megawatt-hours of electricity per head of population.

That's a third less than per-capita power consumption in Hong Kong (see the second chart), half the level in Singapore, and less than a quarter of electricity consumption per head in the United States.

In other words, as the mainland economy continues to develop, its demand for power will only increase. And that demand will be met primarily by burning coal.

Even if the mainland's per-capita electricity consumption were only to rise to Hong Kong's level, it would have to burn an extra 960 million tonnes of coal each year - and that's before factoring in all the coal used directly by industry.

Burning an extra 960 million tonnes of coal will produce an extra 250 million tonnes of ash.

Some of that will escape directly into the atmosphere through power station smoke stacks. The rest will be dumped at disposal sites, from where it will be picked up by the wind and spread across the country, even as far as Hong Kong, as toxic haze.

Alas, there's little we can do. It will take at least 20 years, not five, to clean up this problem.