Hong Kong pollution
THE new government of Hong Kong has bungled plenty since taking office in July, but it looks as if it has pulled off a deft move on green issues. Leung Chun-ying, the city’s chief executive, has chosen Christine Loh Kung-wai as his new environmental undersecretary. It is a striking choice, given her background as a green activist and pro-democracy legislator.
Ms Loh will need to find creative answers to a nagging question: why is Hong Kong’s air so bad (see chart)? Its air pollution often exceeds the limits set by the World Health Organisation, leading to some 3, 200 avoidable deaths a year, according to the University of Hong Kong.
One common explanation is that it is caused by emissions blown over from mainland China. But China is unlikely to be the main culprit. Mike Kilburn of Civic Exchange, a think-tank co-founded by Ms Loh, argues that what matters most is not the aggregate volume of a pollutant like nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Rather, he says, the real harm comes from the roadside, where people walk or gather. By this measure, the biggest health threat is home-grown.
One problem lies in the local power grid’s use of coal, the dirtiest of fuels. Another is the gritty bunker fuel burned by the many ships in a once-fragrant harbour. The city’s lorries, buses and taxis are meant to have catalytic converters, but these often degrade over the years.
There has been some progress. The government has offered fleet operators subsidies to upgrade technologies, and has introduced a half-hearted ban on vehicles idling. Big shipping firms now support an official push for higher-quality fuels. (A new report suggests cleaning up marine fuels could save many lives.) Power plants are adding scrubbers.
Still, two big snags remain. One is outdated standards, says Wong Tze-wai of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He and his colleagues have launched a new air-pollution index that he says captures health risks better than the official index, which has not kept pace with the latest science. Citing international data, the Clean Air Network, another local green group, argues that local air is often three times as foul as in New York and London. Though its overall air quality is better than Beijing’s, a recent study of NO2 pollution still ranked Hong Kong near the bottom of a list of the 32 biggest Chinese cities.
The other problem is politics. Eric Bohm, until recently the boss of WWF Hong Kong, a big green group, believes that citizens badly want a cleaner environment—a view supported by opinion polls. But lobbying often waters down even weak anti-pollution measures.