June 2015 COVER STORY: Fighting To Breathe

Pollution is not a new issue for Hong Kong, as the government has been trying to improve it for years. Little by little, things are starting to turn around, thanks to the efforts of Christine Loh, the Under Secretary for the Environment, as well as China’s increasing focus on dealing with its own pollution concerns

By Leon Lee


Anybody living in Hong Kong knows that the city’s air has its good days and bad days. Good days bring cloudless blue skies and plentiful sunlight for days on out. But on the bad ones, one can barely see the other side across Victoria Harbour, let alone breathe. It’s days like those that can turn the beautiful city into quite an undesirable place to live, affecting not only residents but also visitors and Hong Kong’s image abroad as a top city to live and do business.

“In today’s world, talent can go anywhere, which means Hong Kong talents can leave and other talents can choose not to come,” says Christine Loh, the Under Secretary for the Environment for the HKSAR government.

“What are people looking for? What is the city like? What is it like to live here? Hong Kong has many advantages, but we also have a number of disadvantages,” Loh says. “Air quality is one of them. That’s why for us, air quality is so important.”

“Planet Earth is Screwed”

Loh has long been known in Hong Kong as the authority on environmental issues and policies. For more than 20 years, she has been raising awareness and championing for change. Before she accepted her current position with the government in September 2012, she was the CEO and co-founder of the non-profit think tank Civic Exchange, which focuses on advancing civic education in the public on social, political, environmental and economic issues.

Loh’s initial interest in the environment occurred in 1985. Back then, she was a commodities trader who travelled often. To pass the time on those long plane rides, she would read a lot of magazines.

“There was a period of time around the mid-80s when there were many stories related to the environment. So there was ozone depletion, deforestation, and global warming,” she recalls. “I remember they were major pieces. Iwas just reading them and it struck me that if only half of it was true, planet Earth is screwed. We’re dead.”

Around that time, her friend Linda Siddall had just created the environmental organization Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong. When Loh expressed interest in her readings, Siddall encouraged her to join the group. Before she knew it, she became the chairman.

Eventually she left her career in the private sector and went into politics, serving as a legislator in the Legislative Council for nine years. During that time, she continued her environmental crusade. In 1995, she co-founded the Society for Protection of the Harbour, which fought to limit land reclamation in Victoria Harbour. She has additionally acted as a senior policy adviser to C40, an international climate change network and in 2007, she was named by Time magazine as one of the “Heroes of the Environment”.

The Current State

Over the last several years, marine and air pollution in Hong Kong have shown signs of improvement. Better treatment of sewage under the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS) from 2002 has prevented wastewater from polluting our waters and helped the marine water quality improve. In 2001, the overall compliance rate of water from Victoria Harbour with the government’s Water Quality Objectives (WQOs) was at only 50 percent. In 2014, that number had risen to 77 percent, consequently allowing events such as the Cross Harbour Race to return to the harbor. Loh believes the water will continue to improve after the full implementation of Stage 2A of HATS later in 2015.

Last year, air quality in the city slightly improved as concentration of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide have decreased. This was attributed to initiatives that target cutting down roadside pollution such as phasing out 82,000 pre-Euro IV diesel commercial vehicles by 2019, subsidizing the replacement of catalytic converters on taxis and minibuses and retrofitting some 1,400 Euro II and III franchised buses with selective catalytic reduction devices by next year.

Despite the decrease, pollutant levels were still more than double that of World Health Organization guidelines and Hong Kong’s Air Quality Objectives.

In the first three months of this year, the Environmental Protection Department’s air quality monitoring stations have recorded 726 hours where the Air Quality Health Index was at a Level Eight “Very High” or above in the 11-tier system. Whenever the air quality falls in that range, EPD issues a warning to children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory illnesses to limit outdoor activities.

The Real Enemy
But while concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and respirable suspended particles have gone down in Hong Kong, the level of ozone has steadily increased which is causing concern.

“It’s a very difficult issue because it’s a secondary pollution. If it’s a primary pollution, it means it is coming straight out of, let’s say, a power plant or the back end of a car. I can go and stop it. I can say it’s coming from this,” Loh explains.

“But secondary pollution means that these pollutants are up there in the atmosphere with sunlight. They transform into something else. The transformed bit is much more difficult to deal with.”

According to a recent study by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the local ozone production has actually been decreasing. However, that reduction was offset by the increase of regional pollution which resulted in an increase of 18 percent from 2010 to 2014.

Hong Kong’s close proximity to the Pearl River Delta means we’re in a high emissions regions as it’s one of the world’s major manufacturing and logistics centers. However, things could improve as over the years, China has recognized the severity of the issue and taken major steps to tackle it.

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China’s Plan
“I have been tracking China’s environmental efforts for many years. I think where they are today, they are more serious than they have ever beenbefore. For them to really now not just talk, but to have all the tools in play to do it, this is the time,” Loh says.

In their 10th and 11th Five-Year Plans, the Chinese government set national goals to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 10 percent. In the 12th one, it focused on reducing nitrogen oxides by 10 percent.
Closer to home, both Hong Kong and Guangdong Province have announced their plans on improving air quality with Hong Kong’s “A CleanAir Plan For Hong  Kong” in March 2013 and Guangdong’s “The Guangdong Air Pollution Control Plan (2014-2017)” in February 2014.

Both regions have set up emission reduction targets to be achieved in 2015 and emission reduction ranges for 2020. Hong Kong is also collaborating with the Economic and Information Commission of Guangdong Province on the Cleaner Production Partnership Programme (CP3) which encourages and helps Hong Kong-owned factories in the province to adopt cleaner production technologies and practices.

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 Loh says that both Hong Kong and Guangdong’s effort to improve their air quality is at the forefront nationally. The rest of the country will follow, but it still remains to see how long it will take.

“You can have these high sounding laws and policies, but you need to implement them on the ground. You need to do capacity building for your officials, and you need to get the policy’s priorities down to each province, each city, each county, each little township. That work in a country like China is really hard,” explains Loh.

“But in China today, I think what I find encouraging is that you do have now a much more total view of the problem. And we now have a new generation of leaders. You are seeing at the senior level and also at the working level. I’m seeing many younger people joining everything from research to enforcement to being at the policy level. And to grow this group of officials and so on, you need assistance. You need a lot of people to do this. It is going to take years, but I see them moving ahead now in a much more determined fashion.”

She cites Los Angeles as a reference. From the 1970s, it took about 20 years to clean the air quality in the region to what it is now. She hopes to see greater improvements in the mainland over the next 10 to 15 years, however also says the magnitude of our problem is very large.

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Moving Ahead

Loh has been in office for almost three years now but believes there’s still a lot more work to do. However, with a definite amount of people and resources, she has accepted there’s only so much that can be done in a five-year period, the length of the term of the office. Therefore it’s important for her to work on the best and most appropriate priorities.

Working in the government, she’s learned that things happen slowly. The difference between being in government and being outside is here when we say we want to do something, we actually have to implement it,” Loh says.

“Now as a think tank, if you don’t have to implement, you can talk about what you should do and why it’s important and so on. But you don’t really have to focus on implementation. And the implementation is that vital step, whether you can do it or not.”

“It’s very easy to say this is what I want to do and this is how you do it. But to actually get it done, to pass laws, to make sure you have trials, and to make sure this new system works, to enforce the law, to police the law, it’s actually tremendous amount of work.”

“You have to be able to deliver and ultimately, people are only going to remember those things that you delivered.”

As for her own future, Loh intends to retire after her term ends to spend more time with her family. But before then, she will keep fighting the good fight.

“It’s obvious, we need to do it. I have the opportunity to do it and I have the interest and the knowledge to keep going forward. I think it’s what I like to do and keep doing until I retire,” Loh says. “I never get tired on the issues I care about.”

And she always keeps in mind whom she’s fighting for.

“The most important thing, from the day to day basis, is we owe it to the people who are here to clean up.”

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