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The Sky Is Apalling

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Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Symphony of Lights show is a nightly spectacle anticipated by tourists and locals. But does the region’s worsening air pollution mean lights out not just for the show but for development in general?

As the piano rises to a crescendo, green and white laser beams punctuate Victoria Harbor’s skyline in the nightly Symphony of Lights show. Bright searchlights sweep the sky, even shooting above the waters towards the Kowloon side of the harbor.

This montage of lights is from the fourth act of the show called Partnership, symbolizing the greater connection between the two sides of Victoria Harbor.

But against this tableau of lights is a grim backdrop, quite literally: as a light gray haze hovers around the towering skyscrapers along the harbor. The cloudy haze brings drama to the light show, and one might even find the light spectacle eerie because of it.

But if Hong Kong’s 29.6 million tourists knew that they’re inhaling major pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone from this acrid haze shrouding Victoria Harbor’s waterfront, they might take a dimmer view of the situation.

The last weeks of March set another record for Hong Kong when its Air Pollution Index (API) soared to a ‘high’ of 179 and a ‘very high’ reading of 413 at a roadside station (both the general API and roadside API are monitored), according to Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department.

The EPD suggests that people with heart or respiratory conditions stay indoors since such levels can already cause discomfort to healthy citizens and can cause chronic effects from prolonged exposure.

The first week of March also put a black mark on Hong Kong’s environmental record when the Hong Kong Observatory released data showing the total number of hours of reduced visibility a year rose to 1,139 in 2009, almost four times its level (295 hours) a decade ago. This means that for more than one-and-a-half months every year, smog prevents people from seeing farther than eight kilometers in normal weather.

Government officials point a finger at emissions from factories in Southern China, but public policy think tank Civic Exchange reports that road emissions contribute more to the problem.

Hong Kong is, ironically, Cantonese for ‘fragrant harbor’. But whatever fragrance there used to be is now a distant memory because of the region’s worsening air pollution.

Pay Through the Nose
Aside from the beating that businesses got from the global crunch and the swine flu scare, businesses have also been affected by Hong Kong’s air quality. A report says that the air pollution problem has shooed expatriates away from the Central District, Hong Kong’s financial center, thus marring its reputation against ecofriendly cities like Singapore.

Foreign traders weren’t the only ones scared off by the cloudy haze. In the first half of 2009, tourism in Hong Kong dropped by 3.4%. The tourism industry rebounded, however, when arrivals rose to 29.59 million in August, a 0.3% increase from the previous year.

The Hedley Environmental Index, which is monitored by the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, reports that as of press time, an estimate of HK$ 435.4 million has been lost due to public health care and loss of productivity since January this year. On a daily basis, the economic cost of Hong Kong’s air pollution is some HK$ 2.82 million.

In 2007, a Nielsen survey done for the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong released data that air pollution had stunted labor recruitment growth for professionals. Based on the second AmCham annual survey, 51% of respondents found it hard to recruit people into the Hong Kong workforce; 77% knew people who refused to accept job opportunities in Hong Kong; and 83% knew people who wished to leave their jobs because of the air quality.

According to AmCham chairman Gary Clinton, the survey reflects in ‘objective numbers’ the effect of Hong Kong’s air pollution levels on businesses and the region’s suffering pace of improvement. Some 78% of the participants shared the view that Hong Kong would be less attractive to foreign traders, while 57% were thinking of transplanting and investing their businesses elsewhere.

Beyond Gray Skies
In an effort to push the Hong Kong government to address the issue of air pollution further, a business group, on behalf of non-government group Clean Air Network (CAN), launched a campaign called ‘Clean Up the Air One Signature At a Time’ last March. The consumer petition effort will involve over 300 restaurants and fitness gyms.

The petition flyer features a black-and-white photo of Hong Kong’s world-famous skyline and states that Hong Kong air kills three people a day and 1,100 every year. “ Restaurants and gyms are at the front line of consumer messaging, so this is a very important avenue of communication for a campaign such as ours,”said CAN CEO Joanne Ooi in a news release. TV, radio, and print ads have been placed by the NGO as well as posters and billboards in MTR train stations and shopping centers along The Link.

This was not the first time businesses have taken the initiative to do something about Hong Kong’s air quality. In 2006, Project CLEAN AIR was launched by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (HKGCC) and the Hong Kong Business Coalition on the Environment (BCE) aiming to implement a standard Clean Air Charter. The business sector aims to lessen emissions by releasing guidelines for businesses to adhere to, including energy-reduction measures and new ways for transport and manufacturing processes.

That same year, the Hong Kong and Guangdong province administrations agreed on lower emission targets for 2010. The Hong Kong EPD reports that the two governments set a reduction rate of 40% for sulfur dioxide, 20% for nitrogen oxide, and 55% for respiratory-suspended particulates and volatile organic compounds. This year, the Hong Kong government is set to revise the city’s air management objectives. Environmental groups, however, contest that this is not enough.

As the symphony of lights show nears its end, the music grows more vivace. Different gradations of rainbow-colored light dart their way up the edges of buildings, like those of grand casinos or neon ballrooms. This part is called Celebration, representing a hopeful future for Asia’s World City. Fireworks punctuate the show, with fingers of saffron light blossoming above the Bank of China building like a huge chrysanthemum.

Print ed: 05/10


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