Hong Kong's new Air Quality Health Index

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As updated Air Quality Objectives and a new Air Quality Health Index commence, there’s focus once again on our city’s damagingly grime-filled atmosphere. Anna Cummins considers what it will take to have us breathing easy

Hong Kong’s air quality is, put simply, bad. That’s not really news for those of us who have little choice but to breathe in our city’s sometimes pungently noxious atmosphere. The Hedley Environmental Index shows that only 50 days throughout last year were registered as ‘clear’ – that’s the lowest number in the past four years. More shockingly, around nine preventable deaths and more than 400 hospitalisations occur each day in the city as a devastatingly direct result of this pollution.

It’s a perfect time, then, for the introduction of the government’s brand new Air Quality Objectives and Air Quality Health Index, which replaces the Air Pollution Index. They came into force on January 1 as part of the the ongoing Clean Air Plan, which was introduced back in March last year. The new AQHI monitors concentrations of four major pollutants on a three-hour moving average and alerts residents to the potential health risks posed by the air on a scale ranging from one (low health risk) to 10+ (serious health risk). Our new, stricter, Air Quality Objectives replace ones that hadn’t been updated since 1987.

This is certainly a positive step for the current administration, which is promising to make our air a top priority in coming years. Earlier in 2013, it was announced that $10 billion will be set aside for the retirement of old diesel-powered vehicles, although this will take some years to come into full effect. A Hong Kong NGO, Clean Air Network, has tentatively welcomed the government’s new-found enthusiasm as ‘encouraging’, claiming that concern for the air was ‘rarely seen during the previous administration’.

However, the government continues to be lambasted for what many feel has been a continuously lacklustre response to our choking problem. Andrew Lai, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Department, has insisted that the AQHI will ‘provide more timely and useful air pollution information to the public’, with its accompanying mobile app providing residents with real-time pollution information. But others claim they would prefer to see more direct action. “It’s pointless having an index saying that you’re going to die,” asserts James Middleton, chairman of city charity Clear the Air. “What they should be doing is stopping the reasons that you’re going to die.” 


The new AQHI app

Melonie Chau, senior environmental affairs officer at Friends of the Earth Hong Kong, agrees. “The change to the API system wasn’t the most urgent issue the public needed for the time being, because it’s no more than a tool to raise public awareness,” she says. “It’s not a measure to curb the problem.”Perhaps unsurprisingly, within only a few days of its launch, the AQHI reached levels of 10 or 10+ in Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok, prompting the government to advise children and the elderly to remain indoors.

Many residents would be surprised to discover that marine vessels are the largest contributor to our air woes, rather than idling engines or power plants. To highlight this fact, take a glance at AQHI readings from the remote, vehicle-less island of Tap Mun, located near Mirs Bay in Shenzhen. The pollution there is frequently as high as roadside stations in Central or Causeway Bay. “Our winds are mainly from the east or northeast, for most of the year,” points out Middleton. “Tap Mun is shrouded in nitrogen oxides and sulphur all year… it’s covered in gunk. And that comes from the ships. The wind blows it there.”

Almost inconceivably, the sulphur emissions given off by just 16 ‘supercarrier’ cargo ships are equivalent to that of all the cars in the entire world. The sulphur content of the super-viscous, low-grade bunker fuel used by cargo ships is up to 2,000 times higher than that used in motor vehicles. With such boats trundling around our small territory, it’s hardly suspiring that there is a problem. Even worse, these ships are already carrying low-sulphur fuel – but they don’t use it here. Such fuel is required by law inside Emission Control Areas that are set within 200 nautical miles offshore of many countries in Europe and the Americas. But in Hong Kong, there is no such scheme.

“We have all these vessels going into Shenzhen – and all these vessels are polluting Hong Kong,” says Middleton. “But they’re doing nothing about it! The government just says the waters are under Chinese control. Well, go and speak to China about it then! [If there was an ECA], there’d be an immediate improvement in people’s health and in the whole situation in Hong Kong. But who owns the container ports in Shenzhen, in Hong Kong, in Yantian? Li Ka-shing! I wonder why they haven’t done anything?” The Clean Air Plan does acknowledge this issue, and has promised to ‘begin discussions… on the feasibility of mandating fuel switch for ocean going vessels berthed in Hong Kong’.

Something else imminently worrying clean air activists is the planned construction of a super-incinerator on the island of Shek Kwu Chau, billed as a solution to the impending landfill crisis. It would be the biggest in the world of its kind, and burn up to 3,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste every day. “I think it’s ridiculous,” argues Junius Ho, spokesman for the New Territories Concern Group. “Around one percent of all the waste [burned] will be transformed into carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which will be discharged on a daily basis and floating in the air. That’s aside from the dioxins and heavy metals that may [also] be vapourised.”


Hong Kong pedestrians cover their mouths against street pollution

Ho, and several other activists, are actively promoting the concept of plasma gasification technology as an alternative to handle the waste management. This technology treats waste with the searing heat of a ‘plasma torch’, leaving behind only non-toxic aggregate and synthetic gas. The government, however, fears that the technology is so far unproven on such a scale.

There are clearly many more challenges lying ahead. ‘Urban canyons’, which trap roadside pollution from our congested streets, plus regional smog from the Pearl River Delta are some of the other main issues that are highlighted in the Clean Air Plan. The government is now promising to liaise closely with Guangdong in reducing emissions across the delta. It’s also promised to fund a one-time replacement of the emission-reducing convertors on LPG taxis, after research showed up to 80 percent of them are defective.   

But, as we start a new year amid government health warnings advising kindergarten pupils not to play outside, it remains uncertain if we’ll be escaping the fumes any time soon. Anna Cummins
 
For more information on AQHI, visit
aqhi.gov.hk.

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