GBA Brief

Too much of a grey area: the GBA needs to track where its pollution is coming from

Policymakers in the GBA have promised to wage war on pollution and there has been some progress in clearing the air. But smog still weighs heavily on the region’s skies, something that will be harder to remedy without a clearer idea of where the pollution is coming from.

China leads the world in the amount of solar energy that it produces, although research published last week says it would be generating a lot more power if it weren’t for the smoggy skies.

Scientists worked out that as much as $1.9 billion worth of electricity was lost in 2016 because of the haze – and that the losses are going to get bigger as more solar panels are installed.

That should give policymakers an extra incentive to get to grips with pollution in the towns and cities that make up the GBA, where green goals have been given top billing, and ‘ecological conservation’ was mentioned more than 30 times in the region’s development plan.

The longer-term context is that the local economy has always been a major contributor to the dirty air. Cars, factories and power plants spew out pollutants in a process worsened by hotter weather and the urban sprawl. The effects are concentrated along the fringes of the Pearl River, where the polluted air cools above the water and settles nearby.

Local-level controls have put some of the dirtiest companies out of business but the latest plan is for a structural shift in the economy, where industries like electric vehicles are championed, and smokestack sectors are closed down.

An air quality network already tracks the major pollutants at various points in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong, and concentrations of contaminants like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have been falling since 2006, when monitoring started. But it isn’t all good news. The latest results show that low-level ozone concentrations – the main ingredient in smog – reached 58 micrograms per cubic metre last year, the worst since 2011.

Green groups are unimpressed, pointing out that ozone concentration has increased by more than a fifth since measurements began. They are also unhappy that the region isn’t taking a coordinated approach to skewering the smog, saying that action at city level alone isn’t enough to be effective.  

As an example, Hong Kong’s air pollution chief has already admitted that it wouldn’t meet the World Health Organisation’s air quality targets for 2025, even if it reduced its own emissions to zero. Why? Because of all the pollution that drifts into the city from across the border in mainland China.

Campaigners say that makes it even more of an imperative that an emissions inventory is created at regional level, enabling a more detailed understanding of where all the pollution is coming from.

At the moment this is completely lacking, veteran analyst James Ockenden complained earlier this year, making it impossible to prioritise the policy responses.

Pinpointing the causes of pollution across the different cities is likely to create political challenges: the worst offenders will worry about being compelled to close their dirtier industries or being made to pay carbon taxes in compensation. But the absence of a proper inventory should be embarrassing for a region that is styling itself as a heartland for greener, innovative thinking. “We’re not short on tech, innovation or analytical clout in the region: in Shenzhen, jaywalkers are caught and fined by facial recognition technology… are we saying a detailed and thorough emissions inventory is impossible?” Ockenden asks.