14th Oct, 2009
For years, the government shrugged off concerns about poor air quality as being all but out of its control. Factories in Guangdong, and weather patterns, were blamed for the grey pall hanging overhead. Study upon study, the latest involving the container port at Kwai Chung, have since found that the pollution is mostly our own doing. That it persists, and is in some instances getting worse despite cleaner industries across the border and closer environmental co-operation, confirms what we should have known – and been trying to tackle – all along.
Amid public pressure, authorities have taken tentative and small steps to make the air clearer and healthier. The strategy has been a bottom-up one: legislating for cleaner fuel for private cars, taxis and minibuses, but often leaving the obligations for the bigger polluters voluntary. Emission caps for the two electricity producers have been tightened. But they, together with bus companies, transport operators and ferry firms should be put under greater pressure to switch. The government, meanwhile, has seemingly turned a blind eye to shipping.
Emissions from our two power stations create the majority of the smog, yet the bulk of the electricity they generate still comes from the most polluting fuel, coal. More needs to be done to change this. Only a small proportion of their output is from natural gas, the choice of environmentally-conscious governments elsewhere.
While government measures have significantly lessened low-lying urban pollution, analysis by the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) last month of data from monitors found it continued to be alarmingly high at street level in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. Of particular concern was the high prevalence of microscopic particulates that result from the burning of diesel; they are especially harmful to health. There can be no clearer evidence of a lack of attention to ensuring buses and trucks use cleaner fuel. Nor, given the finding, can the problem be blamed on cross-border winds.
A University of Science and Technology study last week found the same to be the case with emissions of sulphur dioxide from the container port at Kwai Chung. Contrary to assertions from authorities that high sulphur levels in the area had blown from the mainland, the research indicated it emanated from shipping and port operations. The health of as many as three million people had been put at risk, the study said.
Container ships use highly-toxic bunker fuel. Maritime industry data shows the biggest vessels each emit as much pollution as 50 million cars. International agreements permit sea-going craft to burn bunker fuel with up to 4.5 per cent sulphur content. Vehicles on Hong Kong roads use diesel containing 0.005 per cent sulphur.
Government proposals to clear the pollution from sea-going traffic do not mention container ships and the port. Ferries, pleasure craft and other small boats – which already use fuel with a sulphur content of 0.5 per cent – are being encouraged to use low-sulphur diesel. The lack of interest in port operations is down to the low volume of emissions. Such an approach ignores that the burning of bunker fuel is many times more dangerous to health.
International agreements are moving slowly. Fuel standards for ocean-going vessels will be changed to 3.5 per cent sulphur content by 2012. Port cities in Europe and North America, worried about public health, are forming partnerships to force ships entering their waters to use cleaner fuel. Hong Kong can no longer ignore the problem; it has to follow suit in the name of clean air and water.