The disappearing skyline

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By John Qubti

HONG KONG –Last Halloween I stood in line at Toronto’s Pearson airport, staring at an Asian boy wearing a bright red Pokémon outfit. We were waiting to board our flight to Hong Kong.

I did a double take when my boarding pass said the flight was 22 hours from Toronto and only 13 hours back home. Nevertheless, travelling is always exciting and this was my first real Asian experience outside of Pacific Mall or Twister Karaoke on Yonge Street. I was off on a fellowship to investigate issues affecting a city that could soon become relevant in Toronto.

Many of my friends and family begged me not to go. They thought I was crazy to travel to the land where SARS allegedly originated. I put on a brave face before I left, thinking that I was a strong, resilient 23-year-old man with nothing to fear.

Instead of the deadly infectious respiratory disease there was something else waiting to greet me upon arrival: brown and white smog clouds.

During my visit in early November, the smog in Hong Kong was so bad that an air pollution-monitoring index came close to the point where all citizens would have to be advised to stay inside their homes.

On November 3, the air pollution index (API) reached 186 at one of the city’s 14 roadside monitoring stations, topping the record of 185 reported in September 2002, according to the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department.

Walking through the downtown Central district, I noticed that the large skyscrapers featured in the travel brochures were cut off by the thick smog clouds. The light brown haze blotted out the city’s famous Victoria Harbour. The skyscrapers loomed like ghosts in tepid morning light. On top of the smog, the forecast called for sunshine with temperatures around 33 degrees Celsius.

In the index is more than 100, those with heart or respiratory ailments are advised to stay indoors. At 200, that applies to every citizen.

After an hour and a half of wandering around downtown, the heat and smog had made me nauseous and ready to head back to the hotel. I was sweating profusely and every two minutes I was covering my face with my shirt as a diesel spewing bus drove by me.

Standing beside one of the behemoths felt like I was smoking a whole pack of cigarettes, and the buses in Hong Kong are as common as taxicabs in New York City.

Pollution levels were worst felt in the central business district, home to many local and international companies. Recently, business executive have stepped up pressure on Hong Kong’s government to clean up the bad air, which they say is turning off potential investors and foreign talent who might otherwise want to relocate and work here.

Hong Kong’s air pollution problem has grown steadily worse in recent years. The emissions are caused in part by the territory’s large fleets of diesel-powered vehicles and partially by the rapid economic growth in China’s Guangdong province, just north of the city.

The pollution has become so destructive that a recent government survey found that nearly 40 per cent of children in the tiny territory suffered from a respiratory disease –predominantly asthma and bronchitis. Experts have linked the increase to the deteriorating air quality.

“This highlights the critical situation of air pollution in Hong Kong,” said Elsa Foe, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong-based Friends of the Earth, an environmental group. “We are very concerned about the deterioration.”

The cloud of pollutants blanketing southern China could hardly have come at a more inconvenient time for Hong Kong, which is working feverishly to revive the region’s tourism after the outbreak of SARS last year.

I found it a refreshing change that the Hong Kong government took some responsibility for the pollution problems and were quick to show a plan of action.

The smog –composed of dust particles –is a regional phenomenon caused by exceptionally windless weather, according to W.C. Mok, Hong Kong’s chief secretary of the environment.

“We have had some terrible meteorological conditions of late and this is the worst that the region has faced since we introduced the API in 1995,” he said.

Mr. Mok said 98 per cent of Hong Kong’s 18,000 taxis are now powered by liquefied petroleum gas, while the use of ultra-low sulphur diesel in other vehicles meant that the quality of diesel was higher than most industrial nations. Hong Kong, however, cannot control emissions from power stations or industry in the neighboring Guangdong province of Mainland China, which are believed to be the sources of most of the air pollution in the territory.

“Both sides keep blaming each other,” said Ms. Foe of Friends of the Earth. “Hong Kong says the studies show it’s mainly from the mainland, and in Guangdong the studies show the pollutants are from Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong and Guangdong agreed last year on a joint plan to reduce air pollutants in the region. By 2010, the aim is to cut emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile organic compounds by 20 to 55 per cent. Hong Kong is also proposing an emissions trading plan to help limit the cost of anti-pollution measures.

Both regions are working together, they say, to study the air quality of the Pearl River Delta region, where it is expected that smog will be on the rise as trade between Hong Kong and mainland China increases.

However, the thick smog that blanketed Hong Kong during my stay is a clear sign that the territory and southern China are still a long way from cleaning up their bad air.

Residents of Hong Kong will have to accept the smog will be part of life in the region for the time being. However, I did breathe a sigh of relief later in the week when slightly cooler temperatures and cooler air made much of the visible smog disappear.

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