A new way of looking at Hong Kong’s pollution shows the territory should clean up its own air quality before pointing the finger at China.
“We have to do something other than point our finger north,” says Oscar Chow, former chairman of the Industry and Technology Committee of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC), setting the tone for the launch of a new report into Hong Kong’s pollution.
China is often blamed for Hong Kong’s increasing number of hazy days – but Relative Significance of Local vs Regional Sources: Hong Kong’s Air Pollution by policy think-tank Civic Exchange and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) finds local sources are as menacing as those from across the border.
“There seems to be a feeling that most of the pollution is over the border, and there’s not much we can do about it,” says Alexis Lau, an atmospheric scientist working for HKUST since 1994, manager of its Environmental Centre Facility, and co-author of the report.
“But there are three ways we can measure pollution,” he says. The first, he says, is by “emissions inventory” which measures emissions by pure tonnage. Studies along these lines show the Pearl River Delta (PRD) is responsible for around 80% of Hong Kong’s pollution.
The second is a roadside source method, which measures mass concentrations of emission levels in the air at ground level. These methods show the PRD is responsible for around 60-70% of Hong Kong’s roadside pollution.
But a third, and unique, way of looking at it, says Lau, is to count the number of days on which local pollution sources dominated the air compared to the number of days where regional sources (ie the PRD) dominate.
Using this methodology, Lau found Hong Kong itself – local vehicle, marine and power generation – is responsible for 53% of low-visibility days. 11% of days enjoyed low pollution, while the PRD was responsible for 36% of polluted days.
“What Professor Lau has done is actually very innovative,” says Civic Exchange chief executive Christine Loh. “Very few places, if any, have tried to use this methodology to try to understand pollution from a certain regional area.”
“What we learned immediately was, if you look at [pollution] in terms of total tonnage, you’re always going to look at it and say, ‘My God, my headache is over there, there is nothing I can do!’”
“But when we try to see what impacts us on a day-to-day basis, you get another picture. It’s not that either one is right or wrong – they’re both right,” she said.
Loh says the new study has reassured Civic Exchange that if Hong Kong tries to clean up, it can make a difference.
Legislation legislation legislation
When asked by a HKGCC member what individuals can do themselves to help clean up Hong Kong’s air, Professor Anthony Hedley of the University of Hong Kong answered, “From a public health point of view, there are only three things that can help. Legislation, legislation and legislation!”
Loh followed this up. “Certain actions can only be taken by the government,” she said.
Competitive pressures made non-legislated voluntary actions hard to implement. “We can work with sectors like shipping to see what measures they may take on a voluntary basis. But if they will lose money doing this, and no-one else is doing it, then it won’t happen, unless there is a policy change and a level playing field.”
Loh called for the government to speak out on its environmental policy. “Do we have a clear policy statement which requires our government to focus on public health in fighting pollution? The answer is no.”
Loh gave London as a good example of a city which had made public health a key part of its environmental policy. “London’s policy on air pollution is that they put effort into reducing the level of pollution so it is no longer a threat to public health. We don’t have a policy like this,” she said.
“If we had a civil servant here, they would be telling you about initiatives… but they won’t say what their policy is. Of course, they will say they will reduce pollution – but is it linked to public health? No. I would suggest we really need to recalibrate our policy statement towards public health.”
Loh also urged the Hong Kong government to work in partnership with Guangdong’s 863 project, an environmental umbrella project funded by Beijing. “You would have thought it would be a no-brainer for Hong Kong to be a part of that. But it’s taking a while and as far as I know, the Hong Kong government has not yet responded enthusiastically to the Guangdong government.”
Meanwhile Professor Hedley called for an inquiry into the air quality situation in Hong Kong. Referring to the exponential rise in the number of poor visibility days (see chart), he says “We’ve sat and watched the visibility decline. We really dropped the ball here. There should be a full inquiry into exactly what has happened.”
The slides from the report launch presentation can be downloaded as .ppt files from Civic Exchange.