China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Hong Kong leader targets air pollution


THURSDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2006

HONG KONG Faced with air pollution levels that on some days force the elderly and the asthmatic to stay indoors and have some foreigners contemplating a move to cleaner climes, the government of this financial city said Wednesday that it was time to get tough on the worst polluters.

Donald Tsang, the Hong Kong chief executive, outlined an anti-pollution agenda in an annual policy address that promised some carrots and the threat of big sticks to get industry and the polluting public to help clean up the city's frequently murky skies.

"There are no magic bullets, no quick fixes and certainly no easy laws that can quickly solve environmental problems," Tsang said. "It is imperative that we set our goals before it is too late and work relentlessly to achieve them."

But environmental groups said Tsang's promises were too little, too late.

On a day when clouds and smog blotted out the sun, Tsang spoke to the local legislature of an "Action Blue Sky Campaign." Although he promised to be generally guided by the "polluter pays" principle, he promised 3.2 billion Hong Kong dollars of public money to help get 74,000 old diesel commercial vehicles off the roads.

The money, equivalent to $410 million, would be spent on subsidies to encourage the owners of vehicles with pre-Euro standard emission controls, or Euro I standard, to upgrade to Euro IV vehicles over a period of 18 months to three years. Tsang also announced tax cuts on low-emission, high fuel-efficiency cars and trucks.

The government estimates that 25 percent of local air pollution comes from the buses, cars and trucks that wind through the narrow canyons of apartment buildings and office towers of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula. But a large part of Hong Kong's air quality problem lies across the boundary with mainland China in the Pearl River Delta, one of the great manufacturing hubs of China.

In winter, when the winds blow from the north, pollutants from the power plants, factories and cars of the delta settle over Hong Kong, producing a sharp deterioration in air quality.

For a city with tens of thousands of foreign professionals working in it, the issue has become as much about attracting business and investment as preserving health and quality of life.

In the days leading up to Tsang's speech, news media reported on foreigners who have either left Hong Kong with their families or contemplated leaving, citing worsening air quality. Some foreign businesses have said it was a factor in where they would locate, according to news reports.

The U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, James Cunningham, spoke in a recent speech of "an air pollution challenge of alarming proportions." He pointed to studies showing 80 percent of Hong Kong's pollution could be attributed to the industrialization of the delta.

That Tsang dedicated much of his annual speech to the topic several months before a re-election bid reflects the growing political significance of the environment. He also dwelt at length on economic development and social infrastructure, but had little to say about one of the hottest political topics here - a timetable for introducing full democratic rights.

Edwin Lau, director of Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong, an environmental group, said the political potency of environmental issues had long been growing, but the government had neglected to deal with air pollution early enough. Although he welcomed some of Tsang's initiatives, Lau said the plan "was not very strong and doesn't go far enough."

Tsang has negotiated an air-quality management plan with neighboring Guangdong Province, which lies within the Pearl Delta region, that sets a series of specific emissions reduction targets by 2010. He has also imposed emission caps on some power plants in Hong Kong and tried to carry out energy reduction measures in government offices.

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