Why air pollution is too costly for Hong Kong

October 08, 2014 09:21
Civic Party district councilor Paul Zimmerman wants the government to curb marine pollution. Photo: District Council

Hong Kong cannot afford the social and economic cost of air pollution which is preventing top talent from coming and forcing others to leave.

Young families with children are sensitive to environmental concerns which factor in when considering relocation or pursuing career opportunities, Civic Party district councilor Paul Zimmerman told EJ Insight.

There are viable solutions to improve Hong Kong's roadside air quality such as better traffic management to reduce congestion, and cleaner energy.

Hong Kong has about 250 vehicles per kilometer of road, the highest density in the world, World Bank data shows.

Meanwhile, its narrow streets and tall buildings create street canyons that trap pollutants.

Although overall harmful emission has fallen in the past 15 years, the amount of roadside suspended particulates has risen 85 percent during the past decade, creating one of the biggest health hazards, according to Clean Air Network.

Zimmerman said increased traffic from new cross-border links such as the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HKZMB) could worsen congestion in Hong Kong and contribute to deteriorating air quality.

When completed in 2016, the bridge will add up to 60,000 vehicles a day to Hong Kong's already stressed capacity. The figure compares with 44,000 vehicle crossings at present.

Zimmerman is proposing a “park and ride policy” and a steep road usage fees for private cars in downtown areas. This will encourage private motorists to park their vehicles outside downtown areas and encourage them to take public transport.

The government should promote clean energy to generate electricity for homes, cars and ships, he said.

As the third busiest international port in 2011, Hong Kong registered shipboard sulfur dioxide emission equivalent to 54 percent of total sulfur dioxide pollution.

Zimmerman has been campaigning for better marine air pollution measures such as mandatory switching to low-sulphur fuel for all vessels entering and sailing Hong Kong waters.

Increases in electricity prices are inevitable, he said.

Still, Hong Kong has one of the world's cheapest energy prices compared with major cities like Singapore, London or New York, according to government data.

"We have to use cleaner but more expensive fuels… while trying to find solutions for related problems,” Zimmerman said.

If Hong Kong wants to attract talent from other parts of the world, it must protect the environment.

Zimmerman said prudent adjustments can be made to existing country parks for better urban planning but the total area should be kept.

In recent months, however, politics has been front and center of Hong Kong issues, with an ongoing pro-democracy protest sucking the air out of other key concerns such as air pollution.  

How the protest movement will end could determine the priorities of the Hong Kong government, potentially affecting efforts to improve air quality.

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Paul Zimmerman attends a Chinese National Day ceremony with a yellow umbrella that has become a symbol of the ongoing protests. Photo: RTHK
Paul Zimmerman enjoys the fresh air while walking on a street occupied by protesters in Admiralty. Photo: RTHK

EJ Insight reporter