The Deadly Air of Hong Kong

The Toronto Star
Tuesday, June 12, 2001
HONG KONG—It is a view to die for.

But the awe-inspiring vistas from Victoria Peak, overlooking Hong Kong’s Fragrant Harbour, are shrouded in smog most days. And people are dying as a result.

On a few clear days, the mountains of mainland China still beckon from across the harbour. But, on a record 65 days last year, the view was completely blocked by thick air pollution, yellowish and acrid, wafting across the border into this former British colony.

Nearly eight years after being handed back to Chinese sovereignty under the rubric of “One country, two systems,” Hong Kong is in the smothering embrace of the motherland’s industrial emissions. Now, it’s “One country, one environment” — and not a healthy one.

And it’s destined to deteriorate.

“Things are going to get worse before they get better,” says Sarah Liao, Hong Kong’s environment secretary. “If you want a quick fix, I say, `I’m sorry.’”

Medical researchers announced last week that pollution is a factor in up to 15,000 premature deaths annually in this port city of 7 million people. Their conclusions come on top of growing evidence that Hong Kong is paying a high price for neglecting the environment.

“I firmly believe it’s a major cause of premature deaths in Hong Kong,” said Anthony Hedley, head of community medicine at Hong Kong University.

“We need radical interventions,” says Hedley, who co-authored a previous study showing that 17,000 people are hospitalized every year because of air pollution-related ailments. “I see this as an oil tanker at full steam that will take a long time to turn around.”

It would take Hong Kong another 20 years to achieve Canadian air quality standards, which are about twice as stringent. Government statistics show current pollution levels here are more than double the average for Toronto.

Hong Kong’s glittering highrise towers act like concrete canyons that trap toxins in the air when low winds cannot disperse them, compounding the perils of imported pollution. On one such day last September, the air pollution index exceeded the critical 200 level, double the “very high” benchmark of 100 that was recorded more than 80 times last year.

The fallout is being felt in some of those same office towers, where multinational companies are crying foul because of the difficulty in recruiting expatriate managers and other white-collar professionals to a pollution-plagued city. A recent survey by the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce found that four out of five members were unhappy with the environment.

“Some people say they don’t want to come here because of their kids — asthma and all that,” says Bernard Pouliot, head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce here.

A survey by the Canadian Chamber last year found that environmental concerns had overtaken the economy in Hong Kong. Indeed, Pouliot’s organization has joined forces with other foreign business groups “to pressure the government into realizing that this is a problem for business.”

Heeding the business lobby, Hong Kong’s local government belatedly took steps such as converting taxi fleets from diesel to cleaner-burning liquefied petroleum gas. But there’s a limit to what it can do.

More than 80 per cent of the pollution — sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and harmful ozone — emanates from mainland sources beyond its control.

I firmly believe it’s a major cause of premature deaths in Hong Kong. We need radical interventions.’

Anthony Hedley, head of community medicine at Hong Kong University

“I think they’re extremely concerned about it, but they feel impotent about it,” Pouliot says. “We need giant fans to blow the air back to China.”

In fact, the pollution problem is China’s version of blowback: Hong Kong relocated many of its high-polluting industries into low-wage factories across the border over the last two decades, but the prevailing winds are sending them back across the Pearl River Delta.

Dubbed the world’s factory, southern China’s breakneck economic growth of about 15 per cent a year has put unbearable strains on the local environment: The region belches 700,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide annually.

With more than 2.5 million cars on the roads, vehicle ownership is growing at an unprecedented pace among newly prosperous Chinese workers, spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. Electricity shortages have prompted big utilities to restart primitive coal-fired power plants once mothballed.

Factories at full tilt are switching on their standby generators to meet rising electricity needs, relying on low-grade “Bunker C” fuel oil that spews pollutants into the air. The use of dirty or “sour” fuels is blamed for much of the recent surge in pollution.

Now, environmental activists are looking for a shortcut: if they can somehow persuade the factory owners to clean up their act at source, they might avoid the delays from government bureaucracies on both sides.

“The number of visibility days is approaching zero in winter,” warns William Barron, head of urban planning and environmental management at the University of Hong Kong. “Talking to the business community, we basically don’t think the Hong Kong government is in a position to do anything.”

Barron says more than two-thirds of Guangdong factories are owned by Hong Kong interests who might be open to persuasion.

“Why don’t we appeal directly to these guys?” he asks. “They live here, too, and so do their families.”

Directly across the border, the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen has sprung up from out of nowhere over the last 15 years into a teeming city with more than 800,000 vehicles. It recorded an unprecedented 130 bad-air days last year.

Hong Kong officials have taken a more gradualist approach, setting up consultative committees with their Chinese counterparts and calling for more research from new pollution monitoring stations across the Pearl River Delta. Governments on both sides of the border have formally committed to cut emissions in this decade, but only on a “best endeavour” basis lacking any enforcement mechanisms or penalties.

Environmentalists complain that Hong Kong is reluctant to put its big brothers across the border on the spot, losing time for fear that Chinese officials might lose face.

“The Hong Kong government is very good at doing studies,” complains Edwin Lau, assistant director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

“We’re always asking the government to move faster and act bolder — not wag their finger or slap them down; we understand that. But they’re being too cautious.”

For its part, Hong Kong says its hands are tied. Liao, the cabinet-rank environment secretary, said in an interview that her government has targeted most local sources of pollution but cannot order mainland China’s economic engine to ease up.

“What we could do locally we have already done,” she said.

Keith Kwok, the top official in Liao’s department, says: “It’s disappointing, as a Hong Konger living here, to see air quality visibly deteriorate over the last few years… You can smell it in the air.”