In December 2015, the first “green bus” in Hong Kong made its journey across the city, followed by at least four more buses on different routes in the next few weeks. The Hong Kong government simultaneously also announced plans for several more electric buses over the course of 2016, as part of a massive scheme to address the city’s growing air pollution problem.In the past few years, air pollution in Hong Kong has reached extremely serious levels, with reports saying that the air quality was almost as bad as Beijing’s, and that pollution levels exceeded the recommended acceptable limits set by WHO for more than 280 days of the year. It took a long time for the government to act, and it still remains to be seen how effective its efforts will be, but at least something is finally being done to tackle this huge health problem.
Nonetheless, the worrying levels of air pollution are still a concern for Hong Kong residents. Expats in particular are probably the most worried. These are typically people who have carefully weighed the pros and cons and made a conscious decision to live in Hong Kong rather than any other part of the world. Naturally, pollution levels that are high enough to have a severe health impact add a lot of weight to the ‘Cons’ side of the scale.
Moreover, many expats have moved to Hong Kong with their families, which often include small children. High levels of pollution are dangerous at any age, but the health effects are most severe during the childhood years, when children’s lungs and immune systems are still developing. As a result, expats with families tend to worry the most about Hong Kong’s pollution levels, and many constantly wonder whether continuing to live in Hong Kong is a wise choice. News reports in the last few years have noted that pollution is a major reason why a considerable number of expats have left Hong Kong, often to move to Singapore instead.
However, with the mass of information that’s out there, many expats find it difficult to make a proper assessment of the situation. To make things a bit easier, here’s a quick summary of Hong Kong’s pollution problem and what it means for expats.
Just how polluted is Hong Kong?
Official government readings and studies carried out by independent organizations both paint a rather grim picture of the pollution in Hong Kong. Some parts of Hong Kong are of course worse than others, but there isn’t a single area where pollution is not a problem. Some of the areas that have been identified as “pollution hotspots” include Des Voeux Road Central, Yee Wo Street, Hennessy Road, and Queensway. Studies have shown that pollution levels in Central and Causeway Bay were higher than global standards for 280 days of the year in 2014-2015. Even in Eastern District, which is generally less polluted, levels of particulate matter were higher than global standards for over 80 days.
Concentrations of particulate matter along Hong Kong’s main tramway have been recorded as being between 30 and 55 micrograms per cubic meter, while the recommended standard of the WHO is only 10 micrograms per cubic meter and the Hong Kong government itself aims to keep levels below 35. Hong Kong has also seen a rise in ozone pollution that is even worse than neighboring Guangdong. Reports have said that there was a 27 per cent rise in ozone pollution in Hong Kong from 2006 to 2014. On several occasions over the course of 2015, the Hong Kong government issued warning levels that were “very high” and even “serious”, which is the most severe level. Even at lower levels, children, old people, and those with respiratory issues are advised not to exert themselves outdoors; however, at the “very high” and “serious” levels, outdoor physical exertion can be harmful for anyone, at any age and in any state of health.
What’s causing the pollution?
Hong Kong’s severe pollution has often been blamed on winds that bring in pollution from the mainland. China’s pollution problem is of course widely acknowledged, and there are thousands of factories in China’s industrial regions not far from Hong Kong. Easterly winds blow some of this pollution across to Hong Kong, but there are also a number of local factors that play a major role in affecting air quality.
The three main local factors are power plants, sea traffic (ships and other marine vessels), and local vehicular traffic. Especially in terms of pollution at the street level, it is local traffic that has the biggest impact, as can be clearly seen from the fact that pollution levels are higher during rush hour. Private vehicle ownership has increased considerably in Hong Kong, and this is a major contributor to air pollution, both directly and indirectly. In addition to the inefficiency of private vehicles in terms of the number of passengers per vehicle, these vehicles have a much wider impact on traffic and pollution.
Private vehicles are estimated to account for nearly half of all vehicular pollution, and with massive numbers of private vehicles on the road, traffic slows down due to congestion, leading to even more pollution. Congestion caused by private vehicles also slows down public transport, making buses more inefficient and polluting than they would otherwise be.
The situation is aggravated by the “canyon effect” that is created by the walls of skyscrapers across the city, which trap heat and air, and make it difficult for traffic pollution to disperse.
What’s being done to tackle Hong Kong’s pollution problem?
Pollution levels in Hong Kong have been high for decades, and although the government set up its own Air Pollution Index in 1995, the standards adopted were criticized for being far below internationally accepted standards. Government officials have been quoted as saying that the WHO standards are too strict, and this of course met with a lot of criticism. Experts said that the local pollution index didn’t even record certain dangerous pollutants, and that the recorded pollution levels would have been considerably higher if international standards were adopted.
In 2013, the government finally switched to a new index, the Air Quality Health Index, which provides health risk assessments and advice based on measured levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter. This index has provided more accurate information on pollution, and has generally been seen as an improvement.
However, recording pollution levels and issuing alerts will not solve the problem, and so the government has been taking a number of steps to address the root causes of pollution. These include switching to cleaner fuel – all taxis in Hong Kong and all public light buses (PLBs) have switched to LPG rather than petrol or diesel. The government has also provided incentives to encourage the scrapping of pre-Euro VI vehicles, which tend to be considerably more polluting than more recent models. The government is also promoting the use of electric vehicles, and is investing in electric buses for public transport. These buses have already started running on several routes, and after assessing how successful and effective they are, there are plans to add more to the fleet.
In addition, a number of independent, non-governmental organizations have been campaigning for a clean-up of Hong Kong’s air. Organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Clean the Air have been pressurizing the government to prioritize public transport both by investing in it and by de-incentivizing ownership and use of private vehicles. There is also pressure to move from incentivizing the scrapping of old, polluting vehicles to making it compulsory under law. Many of these organizations have also been conducting their own air quality assessments, and have been actively educating the local public about the pollution problem and about what individual citizens can do to help. This included a campaign against idling engines in traffic, which seems to have had a reasonable amount of success.
How harmful can Hong Kong’s pollution be for you and your family?
Probably the most noticeable result of Hong Kong’s high levels of pollution is the effect on visibility. Reports have said that for around a third of the year, visibility is not even eight kilometers. Low visibility of course frequently disrupts flight schedules, and the delays and cancellations cause huge losses both to passengers and the airlines themselves. On a lighter note, the poor visibility has meant that tourists now often take photographs of themselves against massive photographs of Hong Kong’s skyline rather than against the real thing, which is often barely visible.
There is of course a much wider effect on Hong Kong’s economy, but it’s the health impact of the pollution that is most worrying to expats. It has already been globally established that living with high levels of pollution can have a negative impact on the respiratory and circulatory systems. Asthma and bronchial infections have been on the rise in Hong Kong for years, and local studies have estimated that air pollution is responsible for 90,000 hospital admissions and nearly 3,000 deaths each year. The Australian government took the problem seriously enough to issue a travel alert to its citizens a few years ago, saying that “the levels of air pollution in Hong Kong may aggravate bronchial, sinus or asthma conditions”.
Residents of Hong Kong who already suffer from such conditions are bound to see their health deteriorate in the long term, and in addition, young children and elderly people are likely to develop such conditions even if they are otherwise healthy. If you live in Hong Kong, there’s no escaping the pollution. Using air filters at home and masks when outdoors can mitigate its effects, but only to some extent. Measures are being taken to address the problem, and they seem to be having an effect, but right now it would be accurate to say that each breath you take in Hong Kong is damaging your health in some way.
Should you live in Hong Kong?
A question like this is difficult to answer, as the final decision is for each individual to make. As we said earlier, every expat has weighed the pros and cons of living in the place that they have chosen to live in, and dangerously high levels of pollution are certainly a major addition to the list of cons. In spite of this, there are clearly still a number of expats for whom Hong Kong still has more pros than cons.
However, in the last few years, many Hong Kong expats have chosen to either return home or move to Singapore, which is much less polluted but offers many of the same opportunities in terms of careers, especially in the areas of banking and finance. More and more companies in Hong Kong are finding it difficult to recruit talent from overseas, and most say that it is because potential employees are concerned about the pollution. Some people have recommended a “hardship allowance” of 10 or 15 per cent in order to counter these concerns, but of course money can’t solve every problem, especially when health is at stake.
The problem is more pressing for expats who have a spouse and children. If you have a child who already has respiratory issues such as asthma, then Hong Kong is almost certainly the wrong place for you. Young professionals often put their health on the line in the early years of their careers, feeling that it’s worth dealing with a lack of sleep, a poor diet, and massive amounts of stress. Many of them see Hong Kong’s pollution as just another risk to deal with. However, these other risks don’t directly affect the health of their partners and children; living in a place with severe pollution, on the other hand, does. As a result, expats with families are more likely to leave Hong Kong than single professionals. A few have chosen to be based out of Singapore while working in Hong Kong – they spend the work week in Hong Kong and only join their families in Singapore for the weekend.