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Is Hong Kong Killing Me?

Why it could take 20 years for roadside air pollution to improve


According to Hong Kong’s Air Pollution Index, a reading of 160 can cause “irritation to the eyes, wheezing, coughing and sore throats.” Nice!

Goodbye summer, hello smog

Will I ever shake this cold, if a cold is what it is? The running nose, the hacking cough, my lungs seemingly swimming in a Fukushima kind of green. I’m either the unwitting host of something nasty, or this air is slowly killing me.

It’s an unwelcome feature of the Hong Kong calendar that come September and the falling off of the summer heat, the city’s air takes a turn for the worse. That permanent haze so feared by tourists and photographers alike descends, and you’re lucky if you see a truly clear day for the next six months.

It is generally agreed that the winter weather plays a part. There’s little rain and certainly none of the summer storms to help blow the haze away; while the wind, arriving predominantly from the north, tends to bring with it plenty of unwanted gifts from the land above. The weather may cool enough for Hong Kongers to finally get out their hiking shoes, but climbing those peaks and hiking the trails can sometimes seem like so much wasted effort when all you can see are some shadowy outlines of the view you expected when you reach the top. And by all accounts, the air is getting worse.


Hong Kong is beginning to accept that not all of its pollution problems can be blamed on China

It can’t all be China’s fault

It used to be that the blame for Hong Kong’s poor air quality could be dumped pretty unquestioningly on our neighbours on the mainland. But as more and more data reaches the public domain, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the credibility of that once reliable scapegoat. Instead, the idea that Hong Kong could, for once, actually be responsible for its own problems, is beginning to find greater acceptance amongst the public at large.

Take roadside pollution for instance. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, air pollution at street level in Hong Kong increased significantly during the first half of 2013. Levels of nitrogen dioxide – responsible for many of the respiratory problems associated with poor air – rose as much as 22% in some parts of the city, while the Air Pollution Index reached such severe levels on occasions during the first six months of the year, the government advice was to stay indoors.

The news will not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong over the past few years, where just walking down the street has become a hazard in itself. When you have to think about when you should and shouldn’t breathe lest you get a lung full of fumes, when things can be done to reduce the problem that are not being done, it makes you wonder what exactly the government’s priorities are and what it will take for those priorities to change.


Roadside pollution is one of the biggest causes of pollution-related mortality in Hong Kong

We want clean buses!

The Government has said is working hard to reduce emissions. The Environmental Protection Department website boasts that as of 2012, a comprehensive programme to reduce street-level pollution “had lowered the roadside levels of respirable suspended particulates and nitrogen oxides by 42% and 31% respectively compared with 1999.” I’d argue, however, that that’s not exactly a timeframe to be throwing street parties about.

According to the Hong Kong Clean Air Network, 40% of roadside emissions come from buses, with over 70% of the buses on Hong Kong’s roads failing to meet the most stringent Euro V guidelines as followed to by their European counterparts. While new vehicles in Hong Kong are required to conform to the Euro IV standard or higher, only 1% of the buses on the roads currently do so. Given the current rate vehicle retirement, therefore, Hong Kong is not likely to see the back of the most heavily polluting of its buses for another 20 years. Again, hardly street party time.

In the past year, the government has pledged HK$10 billion in subsidies towards removing the worst polluting vehicles from the streets and bringing over 1400 buses further in line with European emission standards. But while steps are being taken to combat air pollution, the government has been criticized for doing too little too slowly.


Source: Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department

What exactly has the government done?

As Friends of the Earth told HK Magazine back in 2012, “the Hong Kong government has done very little and has no clear focus” when seeking to reduce roadside air pollution. It has been accused of having no timetable for removing old vehicles from the roads, while plans to establish low emission zones or to cut bus routes in the city have all been rejected.

Even China, so long Hong Kong’s favoured scapegoat when the subject of pollution arises, has been far more pro-active in comparison. Shenzhen, for instance, aims to replace half of its current bus fleet with electric buses or hybrids by 2015 and is halfway towards doing so. With cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen leading the way in their attempts to combat air pollution, Hong Kong is in danger of losing not only its moral high ground, but its reputation as an Asian leader in environmental matters and its status as an attractive destination for international business.

In the meantime, Hong Kongers continue to suffer and my nose continues to run. If twenty years is really what it will take for the city to get its act together, many of those already at the limit of their tolerance may not be around to see it. It may happen sooner, but looking out of my window at the whiteout where once I saw mountains, don’t (or should that be do?) hold your breath.


40% of Hong Kong’s roadside emissions come from buses, 70% of which are operating to guidelines almost twenty years old

What can you do?

  • Visit the Clean Air Network for more information on air pollution in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Get Involved: How do you find the air pollution in Hong Kong compared to other cities? Would you consider leaving Hong Kong because of the pollution? Is it making you ill? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Why go hiking when this is all you see?


  1. Yeah, this autumn it’s been particularly bad. It’s always bad from November – February. Mandate taxi’s and buses to be electric, Shenzhen does it. The returns on medical costs over time would mitigate the costs over time easily.

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