Nothing is more evident than roadside air pollution. We can see and smell when it is poor and our lungs can tell us how bad it is. The Environmental Protection Department's annual update showing the worst-ever levels in Hong Kong's busiest districts therefore comes as little surprise. It is disappointing that government assurances and measures are having limited impact and updated targets are still not implemented.
Officials contend there is little they can do. Their reason for the Air Pollution Index being above the 'very high' level of 100 for 20 per cent of the time at monitoring stations in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok has been put down to unfavourable weather conditions, worsening background pollution and ageing vehicles. Those figures, 10 times worse than in 2005, continue a worrying trend, particularly for respirable suspended particles and nitrogen dioxide. Blaming low rainfall, sunny days and industrial activity beyond our borders, as the department has done, simply avoids the reality: that the highly polluted air is largely of our own making.
Authorities know exactly what creates the pollution and what must be done to stop it. They know it is mostly caused by Hong Kong's two electric power stations, harbour traffic and vehicles, especially those that use diesel. But as the watering-down and weakening of the recently implemented legislation on idling vehicle engines indicates, the financial interests of companies are being put ahead of the public. Unless there is a change of priorities, our air will continue to worsen and our health and well-being will suffer.
There are all manner of laws, regulations and guidelines. Authorities have pledged to table new air quality objectives to lawmakers, but the targets are years overdue and on some key pollutants are even less stringent than those set by Beijing's Ministry of Environmental Protection. As the think tank Civic Exchange has pointed out in two reports assessing the environmental performance of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration, officials lack the courage to tackle the problem, while those on the mainland are aggressive.
Still, the level of some pollutants has been markedly reduced. Transport companies are being encouraged to take old, highly polluting vehicles out of service and power firms are gradually switching to cleaner fuel. But the measures are obviously not enough.
A telling sign that the government is dragging its feet is a reluctance to adopt standards set by the World Health Organisation 24 years ago. Our city does not lack the financial resources to meet the WHO's latest goals, nor is there any excuse for a delay. Hong Kong's reputation and image in part rest on our skies being clear, but there is an even more pressing reason: our health and future are at stake.