Hong Kong needs stricter laws on air pollution, to hold the government to account

Air pollution persists in Hong Kong despite the government’s efforts to reduce it. Though the levels of some pollutants are measurably falling, the improvements are not happening across the board. We still see many days when a spike in pollutant levels leads to health hazard warnings. Something must be done.

It’s time to make the authorities accountable for ensuring compliance with air quality standards. Indeed, in the current system, the government need not take any action even when roadside nitrogen dioxide levels exceed its own target 134 times – as happened last year.

We have been told the government is doing all it can to lower roadside air pollution. The problem is, is it enough? Hong Kong has a set of air quality objectives that are targets, rather than standards that must be complied with. Under the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, the government aims to meet the targets as soon as is practicable, but there are no legal consequences if its pledge is not kept.

Not so in some other societies. In the UK, the government is legally bound to comply with its air quality standards. A group of environmental lawyers has successfully sued the UK government – twice – over its failure to comply with legal limits of air pollution, most recently last November when the court found the government’s plan for tackling bad air to be “illegally poor”.

Could we see a similar case in Hong Kong? The answer is “no”, not because our roadside nitrogen dioxide levels comply with our air quality objective. In fact, Hong Kong’s nitrogen dioxide levels have exceeded targets for 20 years now. But we can’t sue the government because officials aren’t legally bound to ensure the air we breathe is healthy. The term “public health” does not even appear in the pollution control legislation, reflecting the minimal consideration given to human health.

The air quality objectives are currently under review, and the Environmental Protection Department has initiated a public engagement exercise to solicit opinions on more than 70 air quality improvement measures, with two public forums planned for later this month. So far, so good. But a closer look undermines confidence in these measures.

First, they are divided into “short term”, “medium term”, “long term” and “others” (which basically means “never”). Short-term measures are defined as those that are likely to produce results before 2025. How come “short term” is eight years away? And what were the government’s considerations when categorising these measures?

The answers can be found in the information the government has put up on its public engagement website, where we see terms such as “technical maturity”, “cost effectiveness” and “trade reaction”. The underlying assumption of the air quality objectives review is written in section 8 of the pollution control legislation: “The authority shall aim to achieve the relevant air quality objectives as soon as is reasonably practicable”. Where is the sense of urgency?

Compared with the UK’s Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010, Hong Kong’s legislation ignores the need for public health protection. The UK regulations clearly state that officials must ensure that pollution levels “do not exceed the limit values”, with the purpose of maintaining the “best ambient air quality compatible with sustainable development” and “a high level of protection for the environment and human health”. Clear standards are also set out in the regulations. When air pollutant levels exceed the limit values, officials must “draw up and implement an air quality plan so as to achieve that limit value or target value”, and such a plan should ensure the targets are achieved within “the shortest possible time”.

Such statements are missing in the Hong Kong legislation.

Unless major amendments are made to the law to make the government more accountable for its air quality plan, Hong Kong will not see any bold measures that can significantly improve our roadside air quality and better protect public health.

Loong Tsz Wai is the community relations manager of Clean Air Network

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hold officials to account for air pollution