Hazardous air pollution not only continues to plague much of China, but is now also stifling Hong Kong, the vibrant city whose Chinese name means “Fragrant Harbour.” Here is the view of Hong Kong that greeted me this weekend. It’s almost as if someone was playing with the air smog simulator developed by APM’s Marketplace by drawing a curtain of smog over one of the world’s most famous skylines. Only the pollution is real and it can’t be erased with a slide of the cursor.
According to the Hedley Environmental Index, which monitors and publishes real-time data about Hong Kong’s air pollution and its public health impacts, it’s been over a month since we’ve had a clear day here in which all five criteria pollutants measured at all eleven rooftop monitoring stations meet the latest World Health Organization (WHO) short-term air quality guidelines. In fact, there have only been six clear days so far this year. The index’s current air quality reading, based on WHO guidelines, indicates “Very Dangerous” levels, meaning above any WHO’s annual interim target 1 level. According to the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, which developed and maintains the index, this corresponds to over HKD$109,000 in avoidable health impacts including 8 preventable deaths, 433 hospital bed days, and over 20,000 doctor visit today alone. Last year, air pollution in Hong Kong was responsible for more than 3,000 premature deaths and 7 million doctor visits in a city of 7 million.
Hong Kong’s smog is caused by a mix of local and regional emissions from industrial facilities, coal-fired power plants, dirty diesel vehicles and ships burning bunker fuel, the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel. The Hong Kong government’s 2010 air pollutant emission inventory lists marine vessels as the largest source of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM10) emissions in Hong Kong. Dirty ships are therefore a major reason why particulate emissions in Hong Kong are double those of London and more than 150 percent higher than in New York. According to the Chief Executive’s 2013 Policy Address, marine vessels were also the largest source of SO2 in 2011, although specific numbers are not yet available.