Does Hong Kong need cleaner air? For most, it’s a question that doesn’t need asking. Yet it’s essentially the one posed to us in a new public consultation document from the government, one that follows a review of its existing standards and measures on air pollution. Critics have long charged that the government’s target levels for air pollution are out of date. Known officially as the Air Quality Objectives (AQOs), they were set by the government back in 1987, based on WHO guidelines at the time. While the latter have changed considerably since, ours haven’t moved an inch. Thus local environmentalists welcome the current review. At the same time, however, they say the new objectives are still well below what’s needed to make Hong Kong’s air safe to breathe. On top of that, the 19 measures proposed to achieve the objectives are described as toothless, lacking both direction and a timetable for their implementation. “The only way we’re going to get clean air is through this consultation,” says Mike Kilburn, Environmental Program Manager for Civic Exchange. Yet Kilburn is one of the review’s biggest critics. He says it fails to explain our existing air pollution problems to the public in the first place, and without such information people can’t adequately interpret the extent of the improvements the government hopes to make. For a sobering view of the current effects of air pollution in Hong Kong, one does not need to look further than the University of Hong Kong’s recently established Hedley Environmental Index (hedleyindex.sph.hku.hk). It states that in 2008 alone we suffered 1,155 avoidable deaths, 81,023 preventable hospital admissions and 7.25 million additional doctor visits due to air pollution. The total tangible health costs across the year are estimated at $2.3 billion. Kilburn points out that these figures dwarf those of diseases such as SARS, yet the government has been far less ready to respond to them. Indeed, the government doesn’t include any such figures in its review. Consequently, we’re left with no real measuring stick with which to assess the intended benefits of the government’s proposals. Officials can only tell us that they are expected to extend the average life expectancy in Hong Kong by one month. Many are unimpressed with the claim. Joanne Ooi of the newly founded NGO Clean Air Network points to other projections which indicate if the new measures are put in place, there will still be at least 950 avoidable deaths due to air pollution a year. She also emphasizes that the proposed AQOs for certain pollutants are hardly an improvement on existing levels, and some are even a step backwards. The proposed annual objective for the pollutant PM10, for instance, is 50 μg/m3, only slightly lower than current levels of 55μg/m3. Meanwhile, the objective proposed for sulfur dioxide will be 125 μg/m3, far higher than the current levels of 20 μg/m3. Some might ask how the new objectives can be so lax when they’re supposed to be based on guidelines by the WHO. The truth is, a number of them don’t actually meet these guidelines at all. The government has only decided to meet such guidelines where convenient, and has elsewhere chosen to base their objectives on the WHO’s entry-level standards, designed for poorer countries. “The government is essentially trying to fool the public,” says Edwin Lau, director of Friends of the Earth, who points out that even the AQO for the most dangerous particulate, PM2.5, only meets the interim target one. The 19 measures proposed for tackling air pollution have also drawn no shortage of criticism. Lau argues that the list is almost impossible for a layman to comprehend. “It suggests the government lacks direction,” he says. “They just list out the measures and leave it to us to decide which are the best ones. How are we supposed to decide?” Lau believes the government should explicitly state which measures are most important. To him and others, it’s obvious which of them should be accorded top priority: the early retirement of pre-Euro, Euro I and Euro II standard diesel vehicles. Such vehicles are widely seen as some of the main offenders when it comes to air pollution in Hong Kong, and environmental groups have long been urging the government to get them off the roads. Sadly, the government has made minimal progress on the matter so far, backing down from implementing a mandatory approach and refusing to provide any kind of timeline for their removal. The lack of a timeline for any of the measures proposed in the consultation document is one of the chief sticking points for critics, many of whom point out the document itself arrives only after a nearly two-year study. “It’s worrying that the government would call the achievement of healthy air a ‘long-term goal’ when 1100 people a year are dying from air pollution,” says Ooi from the Clean Air Network. “Does the government consider the prevention of swine flu a long-term goal?” Kilburn adds that the lack of a timeline sends the wrong message to the transport sector, effectively giving them permission to keep on polluting. It also sends the wrong message to Guangdong, with whom the local government is supposed to be partnering with in an effort to cut down pollution across the area overall. “If the government is weak in its own standards, it will go into a weak agreement with its Guangdong counterparts,” he says. Some see partnering up with Guangdong in such efforts as one of the key components missing from the list of 19 measures. Also missing is any reference to a clean port policy, one that would ban the use of toxic bunker fuel by ships in Hong Kong waters, as adopted in North American and European ports. As mentioned, those who object to many aspects of the document nonetheless believe now is a critical period for urging the government to take proper action on air pollution. First and foremost, they say the government needs to pay more than just lip service to putting public health at the center of its air pollution policies. In particular, it needs to adopt the WHO’s air quality guidelines across the board, and it needs to set up a health-centered air pollution index akin to the Hedley Environmental Index. According to Lau, only with such an index—one that shows the human and financial costs of local air pollution—can the public understand and make an informed decision about their environment. “The aim of all this is to safeguard public health, and the public has a right to know about what’s affecting them.” 19 Steps to Cleaner Air What should the government do about the pollution? We asked the public.