Highrise buildings blanketed in haze tower above Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. Hong Kong's air pollution was the worst on record during the past two quarters, sparking regular government health warnings and growing discontent among the city's seven million people. Jerome Favre/ Bloomberg News
Worsening air pollution or air quality is not a natural result of increased urbanization and economic prosperity in Hong Kong. On the contrary, it reflects serious faults in the development of the city (in the broad sense that it includes local corporate business models and lifestyles of the general population) and local public policy. As such, worsening air pollution or air quality is not inevitable. It does not occur only at the current stage of development; and with the progress of the economy moving into a more advanced stage, the situation could be improved simultaneously.
As an almost complete service economy and with a per capita GDP of over $30,000, Hong Kong should be counted as one of the advanced city economies in the world. Cities at the same level of per capita GDP or less, like those of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and Japan, do not have the same magnitude of air pollution as does Hong Kong. If local air pollution is a result of the specific development model and policy regime of Hong Kong, further linear development or progress is expected to exacerbate rather than reduce the problem.
The common argument in Hong Kong is that pollution is transported from across the boundary with the Pearl River Delta (PRD). However, ample evidence has shown that local sources have become as obnoxious as transboundary sources. The SAR government, in cooperation with the Guangdong government, has started a clean production scheme in the PRD region to help Hong Kong-invested factories cut down on their pollutants emissions. With the recent rapid shrinking of these labor-intensive factories, the economic upgrading of the regional economy from industrial to service in general, and the heavy investment of the Guangdong government in the policy and implementation of environmental protection and preservation, the transboundary contribution to Hong Kong air pollution is expected to fall.
But what has our government and society so far done to reduce local sources of air pollution? It seems that there has been too little action too late.
A major reason for the lack of enthusiasm and urgency on the part of the government is that Hong Kong has in the past two decades easily achieved emission reduction. Emissions of air pollutants were at a high from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Since then, emissions have steadily declined (even without any active policy abatement on the part of the government). A simple reason is the drastic restructuring that the local economy has undergone during the period.
The more polluted manufacturing industries contributed almost 25 percent of local GDP in the mid-1980s. Since the 2000s, manufacturing has accounted for less than 5 percent while the service sector accounts for more than 90 percent of the local economy. This has meant the removal of almost all industrial sources of air pollution. Despite its policy inertia, the SAR government has been able to strike an agreement with the Guangdong government to bring down emissions below 1997 levels by 2010. Lately it has agreed to a further reduction. Having said that, even a reduction of 50 percent or greater from 1997 may not be sufficient. There are two fundamental issues. One is that emission reduction is mainly an administrative exercise for the convenience of implementation. It does not take into account the severity of the harmful effects of air pollution on health and other aspects of societal life.
Beyond Hong Kong, the concept of critical load has been used in the assessment of air pollution. Critical load has been defined as a quantitative estimate of exposure to one or more pollutants, which, within the boundaries of current knowledge do not create significant harmful effects on selective elements of the environment, while they remain below the critical level. Such a concept does not support the emission reduction approach to the air pollution problem unless the reduction level is at the same level of critical load. With the extensive shift towards implementation of the critical load concept, international air pollution policy has also changed from emissions reductions to an emissions ceiling. This corresponds to the level of critical load. As a world city, Hong Kong would probably benefit from adopting the same approach in place of remission targets.
The emission ceiling is a powerful policy tool because it relates emission or pollution abatement to the harmful effects of air pollution. Hong Kong has seldom attempted to assess the harm to the health of its citizens or to its economy, society, and ecology. The city has even refused to adopt new standards introduced by the World Health Organization, instead clinging to old and outdated standards with no regard for new scientific discoveries on the harmful effects of pollution. To introduce a policy of emission ceiling(s), Hong Kong would doubly benefit. The government would be obliged to carry out research into the effects of local air pollution referring to recent global scientific developments (e.g., integrative assessment methods using a multi-pollutant and multi-effect approach). This would aid both government and society in a better and more precise understanding of the consequences of pollution. It would also build a consensus to combat it. The SAR government, in its regional cooperation with the Guangdong government, could also introduce emission ceilings to replace emission reduction. Thus, it would take the lead in pollution abatement initiatives rather than merely being a passive follower.
Since the handover in 1997, the policy of the SAR government has become excessively pro-business. Environmental policy in general and air pollution policy in particular have always been science-driven. Subordinating these policies to a pro-business bias practically amounts to abandoning them. There might also be disputes regarding the actual damage or effects of air pollution. These ought not to be used as an excuse to delay pollution abatement measures. The stake is too large and far-reaching.
Instead, Hong Kong probably ought to follow the example of the European Commission by taking up the principle of precaution. On February 2, 2000, the European Commission passed its Communication on the Precautionary Principle, which states, "the precautionary principle applies where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU." Hong Kong is no longer a colony, nor a struggling developing society. With its huge foreign exchange reserve (the seventh largest in the world), Hong Kong should embrace a high level of protection of its citizens.
The author is head of the China Business Centre, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
(HK Edition 08/13/2010 page2)