Forget air quality and public health, the Hong Kong government puts its Lantau development project first

Loong Tsz-wai says the government’s proposal to merely tweak air quality goals in the upcoming review is unacceptable. But tighter regulations may well impede projects like the Lantau reclamation, and it’s clear where its priorities lie

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 7:32am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 8:16am

Ozone levels in Hong Kong have reached a 20-year high, according to the latest figures. Thus, to better protect public health, the Environmental Protection Department’s upcoming Air Quality Objectives Review needs to be radical, and not just focus on how feasible a particular emissions-reducing policy will be.

Instead, the government must look to tighten the objectives so they are much closer to the World Health Organisation air quality guidelines and ensure the implementation of more effective carbon reduction measures and traffic management policies.

Mandating tougher Air Quality Objectives has been proven to be effective for controlling air pollution in Hong Kong. After the objectives were tightened in 2013, the level of nitrogen dioxide, a key indicator of roadside air pollution, has dropped 31 per cent – though it is still 100 per cent higher than the current target.

However, for the upcoming review, the Environmental Protection Department has suggested only tinkering with the standards: under its proposal, the limits on sulphur dioxide and fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 would be shifted from the WHO’s Interim Target 1 to Interim Target 2. But the department would allow the slightly more stringent limit on PM2.5 particulates to be exceeded more frequently, from the present nine times a year to a proposed 35 times.

This is totally unacceptable from a public health point of view. The reason behind this proposal, however, goes beyond the weak will of the administration and lies in the vested interests of other stakeholders.

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In a recent meeting of the Air Quality Objectives Review Working Group, chaired by the undersecretary for the environment, officials said a comprehensive update was “impossible” since the predicted air-quality levels in 2025 in most areas of Hong Kong would far exceed the WHO’s Interim Target 3 for PM10 particulates and ozone.

No development would be possible because projects would not be able to pass the proposed Air Quality Objectives in Environmental Impact Assessments.

Here, one must assume the predicted air-quality levels in 2025 do not include any medium- and long-term pollution reduction measures and traffic management policies, such as more use of renewable energy and lower vehicle mileage.

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Basically, the government is saying that because air pollution will be bad in the future, we cannot move our Air Quality Objectives closer to international standards. Or, put another way, tighter standards and cleaner air would impede infrastructure projects. This is basically the government’s logic behind why we don’t deserve better air in the next decade.

When we look closer, the government’s underlying intention seems clearer.

Figures presented to the working group show that the areas where nitrogen dioxide levels are predicted to exceed Air Quality Objectives in 2025 are the same areas where the government proposes phased reclamation for its Lantau Tomorrow Vision.

There are two ways the government could respond: either issue a waiver for the infrastructure projects, allowing them to adopt older (read “more lax”) Air Quality Objectives, or implement policies that could vastly improve local emissions.

My bet is on officials choosing the former – as they did in the last Air Quality Objectives Review in 2013. Infrastructure projects in the northeast New Territories were facing tighter regulations then, but the government ensured development wasn’t halted by environmental concerns.

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This would explain why the government is in such a hurry now to submit a funding proposal to the Legislative Council to commence a study on phased reclamation for the Lantau Tomorrow Vision by 2019; any amendment to the Air Quality Objectives probably won’t come into effect before 2020.

We will not see clearer skies in the next 10 years – or more – unless the government is willing to adjust its preference for development and infrastructure projects.

Loong Tsz-wai is a member of the air science & health subgroup of the Environment Bureau’s Air Quality Objectives Review Working Group, and senior community relations manager of Clean Air Network