Environment: Beijing to improve air quality measures, Hong Kong pressured to follow suit

Updated On: Jan 16, 2012

In response to mounting pressure from its citizens, Beijing has decided to release hourly data on the quality of air in the city, including measurements of PM2.5, a type of miniscule particulate matter that is  believed to have adverse affects on human lungs and health. Recent developments in China’s air quality monitoring have prompted some to encourage Hong Kong to take similar steps.

The city of Beijing has become notorious for its horrible air quality. Despite the visibly poor quality of air, the city’s official Environmental Protection Bureau's air pollution index tended to show “blue sky days” even when a dark grey smog covered the city. In contrast the American embassy in Beijing, which had an air quality monitor of its own, would report “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” air on the same days, in a part of Beijing that supposedly suffered less from bad air quality. Recently, the city of Beijing was in the news when the city’s smog grounded planes on a day where the horrible air quality was “off the scale,” as it breached the upper limit of 500 on the reading by the American embassy, which rates anything over 150 as unhealthy and over 300 as hazardous.

Chinese officials initially demanded that the embassy stop reporting their data on Twitter to prevent confusion among citizens, but the embassy has persisted, and Beijing’s officials have bowed to pressure from social movement by citizens to improve their air quality monitoring standards to better reflect the quality of air in the city. Among those changes is the decision to make public hourly data on the amount of PM2.5 in the air.

Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong declared last Thursday that the city would improve pollution monitoring and reduce the density of major pollutants at construction sites by 2 percent on average. The city also seeks to recycle 150,000 old cars that cause heavy air pollution. 2.1 billion yuan (US$332.4 million) has been allocated for these purposes.

The success of the social movement in Beijing has crept up elsewhere. In Shanghai, Mayor Han Zheng says the city will close 600 heavily polluting or energy-consuming manufacturing operations and take measures to further protect water resources and monitor air quality, including PM2.5. The movement may spread to other cities, 80% of which, according to China’s standards, have satisfactory air quality. China Daily has claimed that if PM2.5 were considered as part of the standard, only 20% of Chinese cities would be able to meet the standard.

Hong Kong urged to take after Beijing’s example

Despite the murky conditions of most Chinese cities, they may be faring better still than Hong Kong, where smog kills hundreds of people a year, hurts business and drives away talent, according to non-profit group Civic Exchange. Kilburn, head of the group’s environmental strategy, says the government must immediately introduce new air quality objectives, now that China has done so, as it places Hong Kong in a very embarassing position.

Hong Kong’s pollution levels are said to be ten times worse than it was in 2005. The World Health Organisation, which considers PM2.5 as part of its air quality data, placed Hong Kong 559th out of 566 cities. Hong Kong currently vies with Singapore as Asia’s banking powerhouse, and the extremely poor air quality is expected to be harmful to the city’s continued competitiveness in the region.

Lawmaker Kam Nai-wai addressed the Hong Kong Environment Secretary Edward Yau last week to ask if the government would take responsibility for failing to meet Hong Kong’s 1987 air quality objectives. Secretary Yau responded by blaming outlying regions of Hong Kong for causing the smog, but a non-governmental report released Thursday blamed ageing commercial vehicles, LPG-powered taxis and minibuses, which operate in the midst of the city’s towering office and apartment buildings, for causing most of the pollution.

Report: Group urges new pollution update (The Standard, 13 January 2012)

Report: Beijing to put clean-air plan into action (China Daily, 13 January 2012)

Report: Finer details of atmospheric science in Beijing (The Japan Times, 16 January 2012)

Report: China sets pace for smoggy Hong Kong: think-tank (AFP, 15 January 2012)

Report: Flights cancelled as Beijing smog goes 'off the scale' (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 January 2012)

Report: Hong Kong air pollution at worst levels ever: report (Reuters, 8 January 2012)

Commentary: Beijing's air: like standing downwind from a forest fire (The Christian Science Monitor, 10 January 2012)

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