Hong Kong budget must reflect air quality concern
Pollution in the city has worsened following a few years of reprieve and, although the weather has been blamed, the government must take action
Unlike in some mainland cities, smoggy days are, thankfully, not a frequent occurrence in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, air pollution still leaves much to be desired. On Wednesday, the government issued its first unhealthy air warning of 2018, just a day after its annual air quality report card made the embarrassing headline – “hazardous ozone pollution hitting an 18-year high”. The bad press does nothing for our claim as Asia’s world city.
It is discomforting to learn that our air pollution has worsened following a few years of reprieve. According to records of the Environmental Protection Department, Hongkongers endured 44 days of unhealthy air last year, almost twice as many as the year before. The average annual concentration of ozone also rose 19 per cent from 2013 to 51 micrograms per cubic metre of air, the highest level since records began in 1999.
The deterioration in ozone levels was attributed to more sunshine and higher temperatures. As far as another five pollutants are concerned, including sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, their concentrations fell between 11 per cent to 38 per cent from 2013 to last year. The air quality, officials argued, was actually getting better when assessed on a five-year trend.
Be that as it may, the situation experienced by pedestrians may be somewhat different, though. Vehicles belching black smoke are still very much an everyday phenomenon. It is not helped by a continuous unhealthy growth in vehicle numbers. This is probably why the concentrations of roadside nitrogen dioxide and respirable suspended particulates increased by 5 per cent and 3 per cent respectively last year.
It may take more time to assess whether the downturn is solely due to weather changes, but the government must not lower its guard in the meantime. While meteorological conditions affect our air quality, officials admit emissions from across the border may play a part. A lot more can and should be done at the regional level.
It would also do well for the government to critically examine existing transport and environmental policies. A starting point is to consider curbing the growth of cars through taxation and to take polluting vehicles off the road with more vigorous measures.
The new administration appears to have put more emphasis on waste management and other environmental issues. The latest air warning and the damning report card are new reminders that there is no room for complacency when it comes to clean air. The coming budget provides an ample opportunity for the government to demonstrate stronger commitment on this front.