• Mon
  • Sep 15, 2014
  • Updated: 2:19pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Breathing dirty air is Hong Kong's lot, sadly

Jingan Young says one result of the Hong Kong government's inability to tackle pollution is that, sadly, we have come to regard dirty air as normal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 3:33am

There's something in the air, but it's not the smell of the approaching holiday season. Rather, it's the unwelcome return of smog which for the past week has hung over Hong Kong like a viscous cloak of invisibility. Recently, the concentration of one out of the four most threatening air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide, rose to 231.8 micrograms per cubic metre in Central, a level of concentration the World Health Organisation deems toxic and a cause of severe respiratory illness.

Hong Kong is now widely regarded as "smog city", ironic when you consider Hong Kong literally means "fragrant harbour". That's an unfortunate result of the government's inability to tackle the city's escalating environmental issues.

Across the border, things have been even worse, with the mainland reportedly suffering the worst air pollution in 52 years. Major highways, schools and construction sites were closed in over 100 cities. Flights were grounded in Shanghai. The internet was rife with exaggerated shock and horror tales of the smog's impact. Bloggers likened the coal-induced chaos to London's eponymous Great Smog of 1952.

This rude awakening came after Beijing's pledge to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions from power plants, and to set up a "monitoring network" in 16 worst-affected cities and provinces. Environmental officials blamed the "lack of strong wind".

Despite the dystopian furore coming out of the mainland, Hong Kong's workforce marched on. The city has become so accustomed to seeing its cinematic skyline shrouded in pollution, and treating blue skies as a beautiful happenstance, that we've pretty much stopped making a fuss.

At least the mainland's initial response to public criticism was to ban open-air barbecues in Beijing. This was followed by a restriction on car use based on licence plates; odd numbers can drive one day, even numbers the next. Hong Kong's solution? Phone apps to monitor air quality. With such information at their fingertips, Hong Kong people no doubt feel safer in the knowledge that they can easily discover when they are in toxic areas.

Hong Kong's Clear the Air, a non-governmental organisation established after the handover to help reduce air pollution through community schemes, apparently works with the government to find "practical solutions". However, even it agrees enough isn't being done. Hong Kong NGOs seem to struggle when it comes to dealing with our atypical bureaucracy - they get lost in the maze.

There are a few glimmers of light, though. In an effort to counter the government's ineffective air pollution index - to be replaced with more stringent standards (and accompanying app) at the end of the month - the Hedley Environmental Index was born. This website updates in real time the average pollution levels and its direct impact on the public's health as well as the financial losses. The tool records premature deaths (last month said to be 257), hospital bed days (12,852) and hospital visits (620,270). These delineations allow us to see the real health risks - and that should allow the government to put into play solutions to combat them.

So far, nothing. That's no cause to breathe easy.

Jingan Young is a freelance writer and the first playwright commissioned to write in English for the 2014 Hong Kong Arts Festival


More on this story

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

In 1997 Tung-Chee Wha promised that by 2007 Hong Kong would be a world city with air quality similar to London, New York, etc. His budget allocation to achieve this was equal to 2 days turnover at the Happy Valley racecourse... Donald Tsang decided to blame it all on the Pearl River Delta and to do nothing about the road side pollution in order to not upset the local business community. This earned him free trips to Macau, etc. CY Leung has made a noise but no action but somehow managed to lure the previously credible Christine Loh into his team, is she the next one to resign from CY's government?. As someone stated - Hong Kong politicians regards the air pollution as a public relations issue not a health issue and as long as this attitude remains there is no hope for cleaner air in Hong Kong.
John Adams
I agree !
When WILL this impotent government do something positive to stop ALL local sources of air-born pollution, whether it's caused by :
1. Aged public vehicles ( buses, trucks etc) that only ever conformed to air pollution regulations written 30 years ago when they were new
2. Heavy sulfur fuel shipping
3. Power stations
4. Whatever else locally that contributes to street-side air pollution that is not blown in from the North
We have HK$1.5 Trillion in financial reserves, but we still cause 3,000 unnecessary deaths per year due to preventable lung diseases caused by air pollution, and heaven only knows what we are doing to the lungs of our youth.
CY, Christine Loh, EPA : DO SOMETHING NOW !
Christine LOH has been remarkably silent in recent days as the pollution levels creep higher.
Could China take responsibility?
hedleyindex.sph.hku.hk/home.php Premature AVOIDABLE deaths
Donald Tsang
Edward Yau
Gross negligence manslaughter is a form of involuntary manslaughter where the defendant is ostensibly acting lawfully. Involuntary manslaughter may arise where the defendant has caused death but neither intended to cause death nor intended to cause serious bodily harm and thus lacks the mens rea of murder.
It can be shown the defendants-
1. Owed a duty of care to the victims
2. Were in breach of duty
3. The breach of duty caused deaths
4. The defendants' conduct was so bad in all the circumstances as to amount in the jury's opinion to a crime
Just think, if Donald had done something, all the old diesel vehicles could have been replaced by now. All we get from govt is talk, talk, talk....
It might be normal, but WE the inhabitants of Hong Kong should not blindly accept it.


SCMP.com Account