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Getting a lungful: Just how bad is Lantau’s air quality?

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Air pollution is on the rise in densely populated cities across the globe, and you only have to look out the window to see that this includes Hong Kong. But living on Lantau, many of us believe we are protected from the worst of the smog. Henry Benjamin investigates.

With air pollution and its effects constantly making headlines, the most basic thing most of us in the developed world have come to accept as normal – clean air – can no longer be taken for granted. Just last month, ABC News reported that the levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide in some London districts regularly breached European Union standards in 2016, and that air pollution is responsible for the deaths of about 10,000 Londoners per year.

It’s time to face facts – big city smog is no longer the preserve of well-publicised global hotspots like Delhi and Beijing. So how does Hong Kong fare in the scheme of things? And how concerned should we Lantauers be about the air we breathe?

Quality control

We can see with our own eyes that air quality in Hong Kong fluctuates. On high pollution days, a thick smog blows in from the factories in China, particularly Guangdong Province. That Hong Kong has the world’s highest traffic density and still relies upon coal-burning power plants is also a major contributor.

According to the Hedley Environmental Index, which measures Hong Kong’s pollution, the territory experienced PM2.5 levels in excess of the WHO short-term limit for the first four months of 2016. Measuring one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, PM2.5 particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and are known to cause illnesses such as lung cancer and heart disease.

Air pollution has emerged as the world’s fourth biggest cause of premature death, according to the results of a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The Hedley Environmental Index also shows that between January 1 and September 1 of 2016 there were 1,117 premature deaths due to air pollution in Hong Kong alone.

On the upside, the Environmental Protection Department states on its website that air quality in the Pearl River Delta (PRD), including Hong Kong, has improved since 2015 and improved greatly since 2006.“The average annual concentration levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and respirable suspended particulates in the PRD decreased by 19%, 11% and 13% respectively in 2015 when compared with the 2014 levels,” it says.

“Compared with the 2006 levels, the pollutants also showed a significant downward trend with decreases of 72%, 28% and 34% respectively.”

Air pollution hotspot

The Hong Kong Air Pollution Index is based on a rating of low to severe. Hotspots include built-up areas like Causeway Bay, Central and Mongkok, particularly at street level. It follows that Lantau, Lamma and the New Territories usually have low levels of pollution.

That being said, a 2015 study showed that pollution in Tung Chung is among the worst in all of Hong Kong. Green group Green Power states on its website that: “Tung Chung has the highest air pollution index compared with other areas of Hong Kong, in terms of both number of days and hours when the air pollution index exceeds official standards. Even more shocking is that the air quality of Tung Chung is worse than Kwai Chung and Kwun Tung, which are chock-full of industrial buildings.”

“You have got polluted air coming down from the PRD getting caught against Lantau and aggregating there, as well as the issue of the aircraft,” Merrin Pearse of the Living Islands Movement (LIM) explains. “But it is not just the airport; it is more the way that the air builds up in that area with the air coming down from the PRD. Tung Chung is between two major shipping channels, so there is also the issue of ships and boats creating air pollution.”

Outside of Tung Chung, across the rest of the island, air quality is generally good with low levels of pollution recorded. However, the more Lantau is developed, the poorer our air will become. Local action groups expect increased road traffic to have an adverse effect on air quality in South Lantau, in much the same way that the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge will lead to increased air pollution in Tung Chung.

The shape of things to come

Ongoing construction is already affecting air quality on the island and many fear the Integrated Waste Management Facilities (IWMF) about to be built on Shek Kwu Chau will mark the end of clean air in Lantau.

While no one is in any doubt that Hong Kong is in dire need of a workable waste disposal solution – existing landfills will be full by 2020 – the decision to build this 3,000-tonne-a-day waste incinerator just off Lantau was fiercely contested by island residents. Concerns raised were focused on the environment, and also the long-term effect the IWMF could have on our air quality and health.

LIM’s Martin Lerigo argues that plans for the IWMF are poorly thought through. “It’s the wrong technology, wrong approach and wrong location,” he says.

Small, compact and with land at a premium, Hong Kong is perfectly placed to be a role model for the world in the way that it approaches air pollution. But research by local action groups says the IWMF (and its 150-metre smoking chimney) will use air polluting technology and produce toxic ash.

Hong Kong is not Denmark, but the authorities there are already leading the way with imaginative waste disposal processes that do not pollute the air. A few years ago a group of authorities near Copenhagen commissioned New York-based architecture firm BIG to design something new in incinerator waste disposal. The 80-metre tall structure will burn 400,000 tonnes of waste a year, generate enough electricity for 50,000 houses and enough heat for 120,000, while producing zero toxic emissions.

Due to open this year, the Amager Bakke plant will also put its 41,000 square metres of roof to good use. It will double as a small mountain, complete with trees, hiking trails and a ski slope for winter fun. Food for thought, and at least the Danes will be getting a clean lungful.

Images: Andrew Spires, Jason Pagliari, catbirdinchina.wordpress.com and jasondoodlesv3.wordpress.com


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