Hong Kong air quality at risk of deteriorating to pre-coronavirus levels, environmental NGO warns

Hong Kong’s air quality is at risk of a return to pre-coronavirus levels, an environmental group has warned after it was revealed concentrations of some pollutants climbed last year.

But despite the increase environmental authorities said air quality last year was the “second best since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland” after 2022 as emissions had “returned to their normal levels”.

“The air quality indeed worsened from the best level in 2022 and it may further dip to the pre-Covid level in 2019 following the resumption of social and economic activities,” said Patrick Fung Kin-wai, the CEO of NGO Clean Air Network.

“The overall trend is still improving – there are certainly rebounds and fluctuations, but the concentrations of certain pollutants continue to rise, and way above the guidelines set by the World Health Organization.”

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The city’s Causeway Bay recorded the second highest levels of pollutant nitrogen oxide in the air last year. Photo: Elson Li

Fung noted that ozone levels had increased over the past decade, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels at the roadside exceeded the World Health Organization guidelines by 500 per cent.

Environmental authorities on Wednesday said the overall quality of Hong Kong’s air was improving, with only 296 hours of reduced visibility observed at the Observatory in 2023, a significant drop from the peak of 1,570 hours in 2004.

General and roadside monitoring stations recorded slight increases in the levels of three major pollutants, including particulate matter PM10 and PM2.5 and NO2, compared with 2022.

The 2023 levels of PM10 and PM2.5 recorded at roadside stations only, however, exceeded the 2020 figures.

But the figures showed particulate concentrations had still dropped by more 40 per cent at general and roadside stations since 2011.

Ozone concentrations dropped slightly, but still recorded a 40 per cent jump in the levels recorded at general stations from 2011.

The ozone levels logged at roadside stations increased by more than 170 per cent in the same time frame.

Fung attributed the results to the high traffic of vehicles and vessels, in the city and the wider region, after the end of pandemic restrictions, as well as the slow progress of change to green energy sources.

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He said petrol and diesel-powered commercial vehicles and shipping were major contributors to the levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and other pollutants.

But Fung added the government had focused on changing private vehicles from internal combustion to electric, which had a relatively limited effect on emissions.

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) and NOx are the precursors of ozone, with the latter typically emitted by motor vehicles and marine vessels.

A relatively high level of NOx was recorded in some districts, including Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po, Kwai Chung, Kwun Tong, Causeway Bay and Central.

The roadside station at Mong Kok recorded the highest reading at 68 micrograms per cubic metre, followed by Causeway Bay at 67.

Authorities in 2021 laid down a road map to phase out the sale of conventionally powered cars by 2035 with the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Some measures included expanding the charging network, training technical and maintenance workers and formulating a producer-responsibility scheme for dealing with old batteries.

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“An updated road map is still missing from the government … especially on commercial vehicles, they should promote their conversion in a faster and more enhanced manner,” Fung said.

He added firm plans to convert heavy vehicles to electric power were still lacking, with the authorities blaming slower development of suitable technology.

Fung appealed to the government to step up investment in charging facilities to boost the confidence of operators “so they could be reassured that they could still make money with electric vehicles”.

He said stronger regional cooperation was another major key to improving air quality.

The Hong Kong and Macau governments, along with Guangdong province in mainland China, recently completed a three-year study on causes and transport characteristics of ozone in the region and pledged to work together to reduce emissions of NOx and VOC.

But Fung appealed to the government to draw up firm regional targets on reduction of NOx and VOC, along with an action plan to deal with rising ozone levels.

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