For the past 10 years, the South China Morning Post estimates that Hong Kong has spent HK$29 billion (US$3.7 billion) in its crusade against pollution problem. Although we sometimes gripe about the government’s apparent lack of effort whenever we read reports of record pollution levels and when our supposed majestic views of Kowloon are disrupted by poor visibility, the SCMP study actually showed some progress with that multi-billion dollar effort through taxpayers’ money and eco-friendly businesses.
If you ask what benefit did we get from this bonanza, it’s to the tune of 84,000 tons of major pollutants taken out of the atmosphere: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, nitrogen dioxide and respirable suspended particles. If we do the math, this translates to over HK$34,000 (US$4,373) spent for every ton of unwanted particle in the air. With that big amount, we might expect a big improvement in pollution levels. Even if this number might be more skewed than the reality — bus companies offer no estimates as to how much they spent to retrofit engines with more environment-friendly replacements — many can make an argument that this is money not well spent.
A big part of the cost (HK$16 billion) went to subsidies to operators commercial diesel vehicles, tagged as the biggest culprit for roadside pollution. Also, the fund allocated spending (HK$10 billion) for power utility companies CLP Power and Hongkong Electric in their efforts to cap their power generation emissions.
We see air pollution levels occasionally breach the ‘severe’ levels in crowded areas such as Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. Anecdotal evidence points to rising number of respiratory cases: number of cases in the family (members: me and my wife) has been more frequent than a year ago, the number of people wearing face masks seems to increase, and the number of guests our neighborhood health clinic entertains remains steady (read: full capacity).
As much as we would like to contribute to reducing out carbon footprint in our little way, costs get in the way. For example, if I decide to buy a fast charging kit for AA batteries used for devices at home, I need to spend HK$70 for one. That’s an equivalent to 35 pieces of AA batteries I can buy at Yau Shing neighborhood shop. It may take a several months to a year before I exhaust all of them. On the other hand, if I buy the fast charger, it doesn’t mean I will not be using electrical outlet to charge a pair of batteries. So that’s an additional cost I feel could make the entire effort a bit more costly. Of course, I wouldn’t need to throw away rechargable batteries, a big advantage over disposable ones. Still at the end of the day, if one is more expensive than the other, I have higher likelihood of discarding that one.
The HK$29 billion price tag seems hefty, but still it doesn’t include tangible economic and medical costs (via the Hedley Index, a tool that tracks economic costs of pollution on an almost real-time basis) related to air pollution since 2004.
Regardless of how much was actually spent, the public deserves to know if pollution levels have improved. A separate study showed that pollution has prompted a significant number of people to leave the city, including the founder of Hedley Index, Mr Anthony Hedley.
(Disclosure: My tone writing this blog seems calm as I looked at blue skies outside the window coupled with tweets of friends saying it’s indeed a great day to be out in the city.)