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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pollution becomes top issue in Hong Kong election

IHT.com
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

HONG KONG: Worsening air pollution has become one of the most contentious issues in the vote on Sunday for Hong Kong's chief executive, with the incumbent blaming the problem on emissions drifting across the border from mainland China, while his challenger contends that not enough is being done within Hong Kong.

A report released Wednesday about the sources of pollution in Hong Kong is likely to intensify the debate.

The outcome of the election is not in doubt. Only 796 people are allowed to vote, mainly businesspeople with ties to the mainland, and 641 of them have said that they support the Beijing-backed incumbent, Donald Tsang. His pro-democracy rival, Alan Leong, has only received 132 nominations.

But the election has put the spotlight on an issue that poses a growing problem across much of East Asia: the ever-expanding plume of toxic air pollution that rises from Chinese factories and floats toward China's neighbors. Particles from Chinese coal-fired power plants in particular are now drifting across the Pacific and are becoming detectable along the West Coast of the United States, particularly in mountainous areas.

The election has had the unexpected effect, however, of turning Tsang into a critic of air pollution from the mainland. Criticizing mainland China has been politically delicate in Hong Kong since Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997. Even officials in South Korea and Japan have been wary of assailing an increasingly assertive China for the periodic clouds of pollution that drift over Seoul and Tokyo.

But faced with growing local criticism for the dense smog that now shrouds Hong Kong most of the year, Tsang said in a recent speech that "the lion's share" of the air pollution in Hong Kong came from adjacent cities in Guangdong Province. He has called on Hong Kong companies do more to limit pollution from companies they own on the mainland.

Hong Kong government agencies under Tsang have been arguing that 80 percent of the entire tonnage of air pollution released in the Pearl River Delta region comes from mainland cities.

Leong, for his part, contends that Tsang is too reluctant to address pollution released in Hong Kong itself by cars, ships and power plants. "I don't think he is doing anything," Leong said Wednesday evening.

A local nonprofit group, Civic Exchange, released on Wednesday a report prepared with Hong Kong University experts showing that most of the pollution in the densely populated heart of the city comes from local sources.

The report calculated that smog limits visibility to less than eight kilometers, or five miles, for 89 percent of the year. Anthony Hedley, chairman emeritus of the department of community medicine at Hong Kong University, said that mortality from respiratory, cardiovascular and other diseases increases sharply when this occurs.

On 36 percent of the days each year, the pollution is worst at the border with the mainland and spreads across the territory of Hong Kong, the report said. But on 33 percent of the days, pollution is worst in the center of the city and comes mainly from vehicles on local roads and shipping in the harbor. On another 20 percent of the days, the report estimated, pollution is also worst in the city center and comes mainly from vehicles and local power plants.

Shipping traffic in and around Hong Kong has risen over the past decade as Chinese exports have soared. Local power plants have increased their reliance on coal as a depleted natural gas field nearby has provided less gas.

The report did not compare the severity of pollution on days when the wind blows from the mainland with days when the pollution is mainly local. Some of the clearest skies Hong Kong residents had seen for months occurred in February, when mainland factories closed for a week during the Lunar New Year holiday.

The Environmental Protection Department of Hong Kong responded in a statement by noting that the report included a mention that 60 percent of the entire tonnage of air pollution in Hong Kong's air over the course of a year came from the mainland.

Christine Loh, the chief executive of Civic Exchange, is a longtime supporter of greater democracy in Hong Kong. But she said that she had not endorsed Leong's candidacy and that the report was released just before the election only because of a delay in preparing the document.

Arthur Bowring, the managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, said that the trade group favored global regulations requiring refiners to produce much cleaner fuel for ships; refiners currently allocate the thickest, most polluted fuel to the shipping industry. "The refiners are resisting it; they want us to continue burning their waste; they say they don't have the capacity" to produce enough high- grade fuel, Bowring said.

But the shipowners' group opposes local regulations on shipping, a step increasingly advocated by environmentalists here; the Civic Exchange report suggested several limited local measures. Hong Kong is the world's most densely populated place, according to Demographia.com, and the port is just upwind of the most heavily populated areas.

Jane Lau, a spokeswoman for CLP Group, a big electric utility here, said that the company had chosen ultralow- sulfur coal to burn since 2005.

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