Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Travelling thru the smog....

I've just done the very Australian thing of relocating to London for 9 months, so as I sit here in a pub that's over 200 years old, yet which has a wireless hotspot, and as I try not to convert pounds into dollars, I would like to reflect on my stop-over in Hong Kong. I have been to Hong Kong before, and I love it. The food, the people, the food, did I mention the food?

But this time I was confronted by one of the more misfortunate aspects of developed cities, that of smog. The smog was so bad that visibility was down to 8 kilometres.

The words "Hong Kong" translate to "Fragrant Harbour", and this is possibly an apt description, even if the fragrance one smells is not necessarily a nice one. Most of blame falls with Hong Kong's neighbouring Guangdong Province in China, and its coal-burning factories and power plants. This region pumps out about 690,000 tons of sulphur dioxide into the air each year, compared with Hong Kong's 80,000. According to the World Health Organisation, China has 7 of the worlds 10 most polluted cities. Prevailing winds in the region carry pollution and particulate matter south to Hong Kong, and this has been exacerbated in recent years due to typhoons.

In 1993, Hong Kong had 50 days when visibility was below 8 kilometers. In 2004, it was 160. A recent survey found nearly 40 percent of Hong Kong's children suffered from a respiratory disease which linked to smog.

Hong Kong officials have recently started to take action, and this is timely as, although most of the pollution floats south from China, much of the street level pollution is locally made by Hong Kong's fleet of aging diesel powered cars. The city's 17,000 diesel taxis and minibuses are being upgraded with catalytic converters or replaced by LPG powered cars.

Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, Volatile Organic Compounds, Ozone and particulate matter are all to blame. SO2 is colourless but creates acid rain. Nitrogen Oxides make breathing difficult and turn the air brown. Volatile Organic Compounds are nasty, carcinogenic things and ozone, whilst rather beneficial very high up in the atmosphere, is deadly at ground level. Particulate matter is very fine and so can penetrate the lungs and then blood making breathing very difficult.

There are a couple of excellent websites on the problem, developed locally by the Hong Kong government or concerned residents. They are:

China has ratified the Kyoto protocol, which could help alleviate this problem, however the loop-hole is that, as a developing nation, it is not bound by any targets for restraining carbon dioxide emissions. There are also few environmental laws in Guangdong. Problems have also arisen because reserves in the South China Sea gas field were overestimated, which meant that more coal was burnt to meet Hong Kong's, and China's rapidly increasing energy demand. Hong Kong and the Guangdong provincial government have set a target to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide in the Pearl River Delta by 40 percent by 2010.

OK, I think I had better leave this pub. It might just be a little classy for me. I'm off to see Fame the Musical!

Listen to this show here


  1. Hi Marc,

    Good to see you got to London safely! HK has always had fairly average air quality. I distinctly remember one experience from my first trip back to HK in 4th grade in 1988. After a few hours of walking around the streets, I got back to the place I was staying at and blew my nose, only to find the tissue covered with black soot! Good to know the respiratory system tries to filter some of it out atleast... I can only imagine what the air is like with only 8km visibility!


  2. Marc - the HK pollution was terrible when I was there last Dec too; could hardly see from one ferry terminal to the other.

    - aligee

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