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Air your grievances, Hong Kong

Whether it is vehicle exhaust fumes, burning coal or tobacco smoke - you already know the answer to air pollution - stop it before it starts. This is common sense. The question is not how to stop pollution, but why we, the people of Hong Kong, have not used all the means at our disposal to stop it before now.

A number of laws, regulations, decisions and government plans are coming up soon for public debate. They are the smoke-free workplace laws (2004); the coal-fired power plant Scheme of Control (2007-2008); regulation of the most polluting vehicles on the road (ongoing through the Environmental Protection Department); switching from the Central-Wan Chai bypass in favour of electronic road pricing (a $90 million report showing the scheme was a viable alternative was presented to the Legislative Council and Executive Council in 2001. We are still waiting for the government to release it).

With the exception of the tobacco industry, most corporate executives do not wake up in the morning and say: 'Let's see how much air pollution we can create today, and then make even more.' Most would like to run clean businesses. But if they can shift the cost of polluting on to society and from their bottom line, they will do so. After all, they are hired and fired by their shareholders, not the public who has to breathe the polluted air.

Interestingly, because executives are paying attention to the bottom line, many Hong Kong companies are members of the Business Environment Council, and are making efforts towards an environment with clean air to breathe because it is so profitable in the long run.

However, Clear the Air believes that it is the people, not special interest groups or the government that must take action. As a group, we in Hong Kong have a common misconception that other countries which care for their environment have done so effortlessly by just changing people's minds. This is false. Every environmental gain has been fought for by people like you and me. We do it because our health, our parents' health and our children's health is at risk from air pollution. Legal and regulatory systems in other countries have been successful by making it more expensive to pollute than to clean up. Governments are usually very keen to clean up the air.

However, every single gain has been fought every step of the way by corporate executives and their public relations departments. The media is a powerful vehicle for polluters to get their message heard by the public. The best way to fight back is to recognise the tricks and challenge them at every turn.

Here are just five of their tactics. First, point the finger at someone else. Find another industry - any industry - that is also polluting. Say that industry is worse, and that you are being unfairly singled out. Refuse to take any action until every polluter in Hong Kong also takes action.

Second, claim that the problem 'isn't so bad'. Do this in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Third, falsely claim that it will cost your company money. Of course, the fact that society, and even your customers, must pay the price in poor health is never shown on the balance sheet. Also, never show the public the savings you make from cleaning up your machines or the improvement in employees' health.

Fourth, request 'voluntary' compliance within the industry. Then do nothing for as long as possible.

Finally, if your industry really has no shame, state that 'polluters have a 'right' to pollute the air of people around them'.

If you find that these tactics are not amusing, and that you cannot take a deep breath of clean air, then join us.

The best way to clean up our air is to use the system of regulations and laws, lobbying, and the media, to stand up and say that the public relations from polluting industries is just so much rubbish.

Annelise Connell is vice-chairman of Clear The Air - HK