A REGIONAL VIEW
While local sources are responsible for Hong Kong’s bad air most of the time, regional sources play a significant part about a third of the time, according to HKUST’S Institute for the Environment, ADM Capital Foundation and think-tank Civic Exchange. Intense urbanisation and industrialisation in the Pearl River Delta have taken a huge toll on the air quality of the region over the past two decades. Smog from the manufacturing hub’s factories, vehicles, shipping and power plants often blows into Hong Kong on the northerly winds of the winter months.
It’s essential for the city to collaborate with neighbouring authorities if we want truly significant, long-term change, says Loh. “Let’s try to understand our neighbourhood. Yes, we need to clean up the pollution that is produced by ourselves locally, but we do have a regional context, and this is one of the most productive manufacturing regions in the world.”
The good news is that the Pearl River Delta’s concentrations of the most harmful pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates, have decreased sharply since 2006, thanks to the phasing out of highly polluting industry, the fitting of scrubbers to power plants, and the introduction of cleaner vehicle fleets. The national government has set a dramatic 2017 pollution-reduction target for Guangdong and is increasingly involving Hong Kong in the process. In January this year China held its biannual air-quality
“WHAT PHILANTHROPISTS HAVE TO REALISE IS THAT POLLUTION IS A SOCIAL ISSUE ... IT’S THE POOR THAT SUFFER THE MOST”—MARKUS SHAW
FUL SPEED AHEAD
conference in Hong Kong for the first time, a sign that collaboration is growing deeper. “Between now and 2020 there is a good chance this region will see much bigger reductions [in pollution],” says Loh. “The national government and the Guangdong government are pushing very hard.” It’s crucial for both public health and the economy that Hong Kong dramatically and rapidly reduces the toxicity of its air. The Nature Conservancy’s Moses Tsang believes environmental sensitivity and sustainability are crucial for Hong Kong to maintain its claim as Asia’s World City. “We need to raise our game and take the opportunity to be an environmental leader in the region,” he says.
With the traditionally slow pace of progress at the governmental level, it’s easy to feel helpless. But philanthropy in the environmental sector is a way to make a difference—one that tends to be overlooked by Hong Kong’s generous elite in their funding of myriad social causes, such as alleviating poverty and providing education. “What philanthropists have to realise,” says Shaw, “is that pollution is a social issue. Who suffers the most? It’s not the wealthy. They can go and buy clean water to drink and air purifiers for their homes. It’s the poor that suffer the most. All over the world you can see that environmental degradation has a huge social cost. It’s all well and good to put up a building with your name on it, but our universities in Hong Kong are well served; China has become a wealthy nation and can afford its education. Where the money is not going is into environmental causes.”
Loh agrees that private money can help to “speed things up.” She says, “The government can never spend enough money everywhere and that’s why philanthropy is important. [Philanthropists] can spend money on studies like the Des Voeux Road project to stimulate people, to see more innovative schemes. They can fund trials and fund public education.”
Despite the scope of the challenge, Tsang thinks there are bright days ahead. “Hongkongers have always been good at identifying and leveraging a competitive edge; tackling air pollution in this decade is and will be our competitive edge. And I have faith that the Hong Kong spirit will prevail.”