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Air Pollution and Environmental Health Threats in Southern China

Christine Loh, founder of the Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange, says that Hong Kong could lose its status as the economic hub of Asia if the city does not clean up its skies.

Date & Time

Feb. 13, 2007
8:00am – 10:00am

Air Pollution and Environmental Health Threats in Southern China

Paralleling the booming economies in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta (PRD) has been a growing air pollution problem that seriously threatens human health and the region's economy. Speaking at a 13 February 2007 CHINA ENVIRONMENT FORUM meeting, Christine Loh, founder of the Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange, suggested that Hong Kong could lose its status as the economic hub of Asia if the city does not clean up its skies—a task that can only be accomplished in collaboration with Guangdong. One indication that the financial sector may already be fleeing smoggy Hong Kong was a statement by Merrill Lynch recommending that investors switch their real estate investments from Hong Kong to Singapore, a city with significantly cleaner air. Recognizing the dangers of unabated pollution, the governments of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province have undertaken joint studies to find solutions and, most recently, signed a cross-border MOU on creating an SO2 emissions trading program. Civic Exchange has contributed to this cross-border dialog by conducting studies and actively participating in the Air Quality Objective Concern Group, a recently formed group of Hong Kong researchers campaigning for stricter air quality standards and new policy approaches. Through its work, Civic Exchange aims to help policymakers and the public in Hong Kong and the PRD better understand the complexities driving air pollution and the magnitude of the threat to human health.

One Country, Two Systems, One Smog

The oft-quoted statistic that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China oversimplifies the complex regional air quality problems facing Chinese policymakers and citizens. Air pollution challenges are great in the PRD, which was the launching pad for economic reforms in the early 1980s with the creation of the first Special Economic Zones. Hong Kong has played a major role in creating this economic boom in the PRD with investments and access to ports. Hong Kong and cities in the PRD have benefited—and suffered—from the growth in manufacturing and urbanization in the region.

Christine Loh discussed Civic Exchange's June 2006 report on air quality in southern China, which revealed some alarming and surprising trends. Natural air currents cause air to sink and settle over the Pearl River Basin. This "funneling" of air pollution over the basin helps to explain why the air in Foshan city and a large area between Shenzhen and Hong Kong have become so toxic. The air pollution in southern China is mainly from four types of emissions: (1) cars; (2) light manufacturing plants, particularly electronic and plastic production; (3) coal-burning power plants; and (4) shipping yards. The first three are relatively well-publicized and politically acknowledged causes of pollution. However, a March 2006 Civic Exchange report Marine Emission Reduction Options for Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta Region highlights that the fourth factor—shipping yards—represents the greatest health threat to Hong Kong citizens.

This conclusion on the danger of ports was surprising to the government and public. However, while shipping ports do not produce as much pollution as power plants and cars, they are especially polluting because ships are allowed to burn bunker fuel, the dregs of oil refinery. The sulfur content in bunker fuel is 4.5 percent, as compared to the less than 1 percent in automobile fuel. The ports in Hong Kong are among the world's busiest and run 24 hours a day. During the day the sea breeze takes the bunker fuel emissions out to sea; however, at night, the sea breezes reverse and carry the high-sulfur pollution inland over the major residential districts of central Hong Kong.

Another major air quality concern in southern China is poor city planning. For example, in Hong Kong the narrow roads and tall buildings exacerbate urban air pollution through a process called the "street canyon effect," in which air pollutants traveling high in the air settle in the spaces between buildings, mixing with emissions from the street, so the air pollution on the ground is much greater than that in the air above the buildings. Christine Loh argued that city planners in Hong Kong need to reconsider the current model of building tall, wall-like buildings near the sea that trap polluted air over the city streets.

One last air quality concern facing Hong Kong and the PRD is climate change. Citing some of the information in the November 2006 Civic Exchange report The Impacts of Climate Change in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta, Christine Loh discussed how susceptible the region is to even a slight rise in sea level. Much of the economy of this region is located less than 6 meters above sea level. While a mean sea level rise of 6 meters is extremely unlikely, erratic rainfall and higher storm surges already periodically raise the sea 3 to 4 meters in southern China. A slight rise in sea level or an increase in large tropical storms due to pollution-related high temperatures could prove devastating for the region's economy.

Air Quality Standards in Hong Kong

In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) released updated air quality guidelines that recommend significantly higher standards to protect human health. Loh cited one European study that posited if air quality was improved in Holland to meet the new WHO standards, each person in the country could gain 36 months of life.

Hong Kong's air quality standards have not been altered since 1987 and are notably far below those of China. Hong Kong's air quality is 32 percent worse than the maximum standard set by the WHO, and currently the city does not meet its own 1987 standards. Christine Loh and other researchers involved in the Air Quality Objective Concern Group (AQOCG) are urging Hong Kong to adopt the WHO's Air Quality Guidelines (see October 2006 AQOCG news release). AQOCG estimates 64,200 hospital admissions (176 per day), as well as 6.9 million annual trips to the doctor—one per resident of Hong Kong, due to air quality-related illness. Additionally, there are 1,006 air pollution-related deaths per year in Hong Kong. These serious health outcomes result in annual losses of over HK$2 billion in direct healthcare costs and productivity losses of HK$19 billion.

Needed Steps Forward

By meeting WHO standards, Hong Kong could help protect health, decrease healthcare costs, and limit damage to the economy from high-level professionals and investment fleeing polluted skies.

One case illustrating how much can be gained from a simple air quality intervention took place in 1990 in Hong Kong. The government banned high-sulfur fuels and realized an immediate reduction in air pollution and related illnesses. However, many in the Hong Kong government believe it unwise to strengthen the emissions standards when the city cannot even meet the existing, weaker standards.

Because the air pollution is currently so dangerous, Loh hopes that the government will "multitask," targeting transportation, urban design, and energy efficiency to realize immediate public health improvements and end the loss of high-level investment. Loh stated that the very top policymakers understand the problem, "but what is disheartening is that we [in Hong Kong] are not taking up the opportunities that are there." Some key opportunities include: (1) the population drop in Hong Kong that may allow changes to be made to urban development; and (2) the high level of capital raised by highly-polluting industries in the area that could facilitate experiments with pollution emissions trading.

Hong Kong policymakers are considering market mechanisms and cross-boundary relations to alleviate pollution problems. For example, Hong Kong and Guangdong recently signed a high-profile emissions trading memorandum. However, how to implement such a cross-border system is still being discussed. China has relatively progressive air pollution and energy efficiency standards that suffer due to lack of transparency and poor enforcement at the local level. Furthermore, monitoring technology is not yet fully in place in Guangdong. Nevertheless, Loh is optimistic that an emissions trading pilot scheme will take place, because the cross-border agreement has made it very high profile.

Other options that Civic Exchange are now examining include voluntary emissions and energy efficiency programs. Civic Exchange has targeted dialog with the shipping industry and factories in Hong Kong and the PRD to demonstrate how such programs can help these polluters lower emissions while increasing profit. One program Loh highlighted was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new P2E2 (pollution prevention and energy efficiency) program that it is being launched in Hong Kong and southern China with support from the Asian Development Bank. This program encourages voluntary energy efficiency and pollution reduction strategies to help take the risk out of upgrading old, polluting technologies for manufacturers. Loh sees such programs as a means of improving U.S.-China relations and encouraging governments in Hong Kong and south China to implement similar programs.

Drafted by Jennifer Turner and Linden Ellis.



Christine Loh

Founder, Civic Exchange
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