Hong Kong's Not So Chilly Winter Of Discontent


Unseasonable warm weather in the midst of Hong Kong’s winter brings some bright days but in neighbouring Guangzhou it’s a different story. During the dry winter months from September to March, clouds of airborne particles from vehicles, factories and power plants come into contact with fog moisture and expand to create polluted brown fog.

The South China Morning Post reports that over the past four years Guangzhou averaged 88 days per year of polluted fog; other Pearl River Delta (PRD) cities, Foshan and Dongguan, averaged 156 and 103 days respectively. There are an estimated 70,000 HK-owned factories in the PRD – attracted there by lower labour costs and lax regulation.

The air quality in Hong Kong may not be much better. It’s a rare day that’s clear. Most days a blue-grey veil hangs in the air. The skyscrapers of Hong Kong and Kowloon can’t be seen from the neighbouring island of Lantau.

Hong Kong Full Moon through fine particulate pollution.

The HK Government’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has joined a PRD-wide air-quality monitoring network, but it doesn’t produce real time reports. It doesn’t offer warnings or forecasts to the public. Nor does it offer analysis, or data transparency. The EPD says its index is only a tool for pollution management and assessment, and it might evolve to offer more information to the public – in the future!

For most people, Hong Kong’s deteriorating air quality is a real problem. Recent studies by the University of Southern California and Harvard University, quoted by Richard Holdcroft in the South China Morning Post on 23 October last year, confirm that 18-year-olds growing up in environments with similar levels of fine-particulate pollution as in Hong Kong are suffering severe and permanent effects from air pollution, with many losing over 20 per cent of lung function.

Limited studies of Hong Kong children show they are suffering negative effects from air pollution. Lack of funds prevents longer-term research. The EPD has all rhe information it needs to know the scale of the problem, but seemed unwilling to act. If Hong Kong were to adopt European monitoring standards its indices would jump off the charts. EU standards are now viewed as too lax by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It has found there is no threshold level below which particulate pollution is not a significant concern.

Currently, the EU sets an Air Pollution Index (API) of 50 micrograms per cubic metre of air as the point triggering health warnings; in Hong Kong that point is set at 180 micrograms per cubic metre.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says the Hong Kong Government has done well in reducing some forms of air pollution but also says fine-particulate pollution is increasing here. It led a group that reported to the EPD that it should begin reporting fine-particulate levels as part of the API and tighten all pollution standards.

As for the ubiquitous silver Mercedes-Benz – the preferred car in Hong Kong where petrol costs more than A$2 per litre and where cars more than two years old are an endangered species – its modern engine may burn fuel more efficiently, and at higher temperatures may produce less pollution overall, but it may also be responsible for higher levels of ultra-fine particles.

The Secretary for Environment and Transport, Dr Sarah Liao, has dismissed the need for an air quality standard for very fine particulate matter notwithstanding the advice her department has received. The WHO, US, EU and Australia are all reviewing particulate pollution guidelines. Hong Kong’s are 20 years old and less strict than currently recommended.

Hong Kong air contains more than a billion suspended particles per breath, equivalent to smoking eight cigarettes per day in terms of lost life expectancy. In a heavily polluted city like Hong Kong jogging can be more of a hazard than a help, considering the increased exposure to pollution that strenuous exercise in the open air brings. More so for schoolchildren whose developing bodies are exercised in asphalted urban playgrounds in a high-rise city that traps pollution.

By using obsolete guidelines to assess proposed developments, Hong Kong continues to raise already dangerously high pollution levels. Those who described pollution as an unavoidable cost of progress are condoning people’s health being effectively stolen and sold by powerful economic interests that exert control over government.

The problem is so bad that the incoming chairman of the local American Chamber of Commerce says combating air pollution is one of the keys to making Hong Kong more attractive to foreign investors.

Meanwhile, local power utility China Light Power (CLP) protests having to meet emission standards. Fortunately for CLP, Hong Kong’s ‘executive led government’ secured by functional constituencies (link here) isn’t likely to get too serious about air pollution notwithstanding a chorus of consistent warnings from local professors of community medicine.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.