This post is from Heather Croshaw, a rising 3L at Vermont Law School (VLS) and currently interning at WWF in Hong Kong. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of WWF or VLS.
This summer I decided to partake in an internship in Hong Kong at World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) to work in their Climate Change program.
I had a few days to explore the Hong Kong area before beginning work. Considering the amount of activities and sites in Hong Kong, I decided to do some of the real touristy ones first. One particularly popular activity sits directly outside WWF’s Central office, the Victoria Peak Tram, or just known as the Peak Tram.
The Peak Tram services millions of tourists each year, who clamor to witness the famous Hong Kong city view from the summit (well, almost the summit) of Victoria Peak. The tram climbs at a very steep incline, where the buildings look practically sideways. Not a fan of heights, I just kept looking up and not down!
Once the tram reached the top, the views were indeed impressive. The observation deck was especially wonderful for seeing the different sides of the island. While it was a warm day (28 or 29 C), a slight haze marred the picturesque cityscape. The smog was ruing the impressive view of the cityscape. Indeed, air pollution is a problem in Hong Kong SAR and the Pearl River Delta region.
After I left the observation tower, I wandered along to another viewing point where a bunch of tourists gathered. After taking in the view for a few minutes, a young woman asked for my attention. She asked me if I wanted to take a survey. I agreed. After I glanced at the survey, I realized that it was about air pollution and the city skyline. As an environmentalist, I understand more about air pollution than the average layperson- I’d like to think- especially on causes of air pollution, regulatory controls, policy options and legal duties to protect clean air and the right to health. I was feeling in my element.
The student held up 5 pictures of Hong Kong’s skyline and asked me to compare the picture to today’s view. It was definitely smoggy compared to 3 other pictures, but two other pictures were worse, which actually demonstrated how bad the air pollution can be in Hong Kong.
The survey asked questions about the causes of air pollution and possible health effects; rankings on what kinds of natural hazards are “worse” than others; whether people would be willing to change behavior (i.e. drive less); and how much money would people be willing to pay to clean the air. I found it hard to answer some questions, especially about ranking the natural disasters. Do I think Climate Change is the number one priority or today’s air pollution or water contamination? What about maintaining affordable electricity while implementing SOx, NOx, VOCs, PPMs and CO2 emission controls? How much would I be willing to pay to clean the air?
After I completed the survey, I briefly told her about my professional background, as a way to connect as people interested in protecting the environment. I had a nice discussion with the environmental science student from University of Hong Kong about her studies and what she hopes to do after school. She finishes her university degree in August. I wished her luck.
Based on background reading, I knew that air pollution was particularly problematic in China as well as in Hong Kong. What I didn’t know was that Hong Kong’s air pollution violated WHO standards.
In 2011, Hong Kong only had 59 clear days in which all 5 categories of air pollutants (NO2, PM10, SO2, O3 and PM2.5) satisfied the WHO short-term air quality guidelines (AQGs).
Before, Hong Kong could blame development and uncontrolled air pollution in China. When the wind blows from the mainland, pollution definitely settles into Hong Kong’s city area. Power plants, industry, buildings and motorized vehicles emit the majority of emissions causing the air pollution. However, Hong Kong cannot blame mainland China for all the air pollution, as Hong Kong’s motorized vehicles and power plants emit a significant amount of pollution. Thus, Hong Kong suffers both local and regional air pollution in the Pearl River Delta (not to mention water pollution as well).
So, how does Hong Kong fix the air pollution? They have an Air Pollution Ordinance, but the law has to go further. The policy-making arena has made some progress. In 2012, the Hong Kong Government finally updated their Air Quality Objectives for the first time since 1987, but actually offered little improvement.
Policy-makers face tough choices as they have to deal with the short term versus long term issues, while satisfying their constituents.
Protecting the environment does not have to be a hard choice though, which can be a difficult concept for some policymakers to understand. Hong Kong faces similar policy decisions as in the U.S., where people claim that protecting the environment kills jobs and hurts economic growth.