Don't censor pollution data

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 3:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 9:31am

Growing concern about the long-term economic and health implications of pollution has seen air quality elevated in the mainland's public policy priorities. One welcome result is that many cities which once treated monitoring data as highly confidential are now much more transparent, to the point of revealing it on a real-time basis. This has given officials and scientists a better handle on trends and the effectiveness of counter-measures.

So it is disappointing that two air-pollution studies in the Pearl River Delta region, both funded by Hong Kong at a cost of HK$10 million each and completed three years ago, have only just been uploaded on the Environmental Protection Department's website. The reports provided the scientific basis for setting new cross-border targets for emission cuts for next year and 2020, and for enhancing air-quality monitoring.

Worse still, the reports are only summaries which exclude unspecified information from the mainland side considered confidential and sensitive, but quite possibly critical to an objective assessment. They have been censored by Guangdong under an agreement not to release them intact, according to an EPD spokesman, even though the province's role in the studies was confined to providing back-up and technical support.

The projects were commissioned in 2007 to study the formation of photochemical smog, or ozone pollution, and industrial sources of air pollution in the region, both of which impact on Hong Kong. The censorship contrasts with the full disclosure in 2002 of the first regional air-quality report, including technical annexes, the basis on which the first cross-border emission reduction targets were set.

In the latest instance, we trust that claims about the confidentiality of information from polluting industries were properly tested. Air pollution, after all, affects us all and knows no borders. The study on industrial pollution sources was not a witchhunt but a search for more information about trends that is an essential tool for policymakers, regulators and scientists.