In a daze about haze

In a daze about haze

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Pollution blankets morning traffic in Qingdao city, in Shandong province.
Pollution blankets morning traffic in Qingdao city, in Shandong province.
Photo: EPA
Poor air quality is common on the mainland. Pollution presents significant economic and social problems. Much of it comes from the country's rapid industrialisation in recent decades.

According to a World Bank report, 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are on the mainland. Only 1 per cent of the country's urban population breathe "safe" air.

On the other hand, China has become the world's second biggest economic power with considerable political clout. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty as the nation continues to develop at a record-breaking speed. Surely that outweighs the environmental drawbacks?

Sadly, the answer is no. Some 750,000 citizens die each year due to pollution-related causes. Social unrest has grown in recent months over environmental issues. Government officials do recognise pollution's "threat to growth", but even as environmental laws become stricter, their implementation remains lax.

The country's current Five Year Plan has allocated 816 billion yuan (HK$1.01 trillion) to improve the environment, but what is needed is stricter implementation of laws.

Hong Kong, too, faces its own share of pollution problems. Although the city aims to meet World Health Organisation (WHO) standards for air quality by 2014, it still greatly exceeds WHO guidelines across numerous indicators. Roadside pollution last year was the second worst on record, according to the Clean Air Network (CAN).

Unlike the mainland, where trucks must be scrapped after 15 years, Hong Kong does not have such laws.

Besides, 80 per cent of roadside pollutants come from ageing commercial vehicles. So it would make sense to introduce legislation to ensure that all ageing vehicles are retired, despite the short-term costs. But that may be too much to ask in times of economic uncertainty, even in the world's third largest financial hub.

But then there is this: Hong Kong's death toll from air pollution in 2012 was 10 times higher than the city's death toll from Sars in 2003. In addition, almost HK$40 billion was lost last year to pollution, according to CAN. Clearly, something must be done.

Some businesses are already taking action. Take Maersk, the world's biggest container-shipping company, which uses cleaner low-sulphur fuel. They do so voluntarily at a higher cost despite fierce competition from their business rivals. But they will stop using the cleaner fuel unless it is required by law by the end of the year. Such laws are needed, along with stricter enforcement, to make sure things improve for many decades to come.

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