Hong Kong (China) Skies Clear -- Thanks to Nature

Tommy Chan, a street vendor in central Hong Kong, credits China's drive to close factories across the country before the Olympics for the blue skies the city's citizens have been enjoying.

``Maybe they shut down a few more this time for the Olympics because they wanted to give a good impression to the rest of the world,'' said Chan, 65, who has been selling snacks on Queen's Road for more than a decade.

The brown-tinged haze that typically obscures views in the city, which hosted the Olympic equestrian events, has been absent for the past two weeks due to seasonal wind and weather patterns, according to the Environmental Protection Department. The message: Olympics or no Olympics, foul air will return.

``Weather conditions in summer months favor dispersion of air pollutants,'' said Felix Leung, a spokesman for the department. ``With oceanic wind and good air dispersion, the current pollution levels are low.''

The Olympic Games ended Sunday with a closing ceremony in Beijing. In Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China since British rule ended in 1997, the period was marked by a month of the lowest average pollution levels downtown this year.

Hong Kong's government identifies cutting smog as a priority because poor air quality is harming the city's reputation as a tourist destination and damaging the health of the population, according to a policy document released last year.

The government's air pollution index in the city's Central and Western districts fell to as low as 11 on Aug. 19, according to the environment department's Web site. Today it was at 24 as of 2:30 p.m. local time.

Above 100, people with heart or lung problems are advised to avoid exercising outdoors. The index had reached 150 in July and climbed to records in some parts of the territory, raising concerns about the welfare of horses in the Olympics.

``It's better than it has been,'' said Anthony Hedley, a professor in the Department of Community Medicine at the University of Hong Kong. ``But it's not necessarily the safest air we could have.''

Around 220 horses from 42 countries were involved in this month's equestrian events at the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong. The government had previously released a statement saying record pollution levels were ``no cause for alarm'' for the horses.

``It's seasonal,'' said Edward Chan, Greenpeace campaign manager in Hong Kong. ``Hong Kong's air pollution levels are usually lower in July and August. The emission of pollutants never reduced. They will reappear again from September.''

Officials in Beijing, Hong Kong and other Olympic venues intensified efforts to combat pollution before the Games as China sought to showcase its emerging economy. Beijing removed cars and closed factories in a bid to improve air quality.

It's difficult to say whether the measures helped, Hedley said. ``They've had some pretty dirty air in the early part of the Olympics.''

In China's capital, the air quality was at its best level in 10 years this month, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.

``One swallow doesn't make a summer,'' said Hedley. ``I'll personally be very, very surprised if we see any improvement in the near future'' in China's urban air quality. ``The growth of road vehicles is a tremendous source of mobile pollution.''

Beijing had spent $17 billion cutting air pollution for the Olympics, removing more than half the cars from its roads, halting construction work, and shutting factories.

Air pollution causes about 10,000 deaths yearly in southern China's Pearl River Delta region, including Hong Kong and Macau, according to a study released in June by a research group and three universities.

Research group Civic Exchange says the link between Hong Kong's air quality and public health needs to be acknowledged and acted upon. The group has published suggestions for action the government can take to cut the smog.

Hong Kong had the worst March in 30 years in terms of visibility because of bad weather and pollution.

CLP Holdings Ltd., Hong Kong's biggest power supplier, has won environmental approval to build a liquefied natural gas receiving terminal to help meet emissions targets.

The company plans to use non-carbon sources, including renewables, nuclear and hydropower, for 20 percent of total generation capacity by 2020, according to Chief Executive Officer Andrew Brandler.

Meantime, government predictions suggest Hong Kong residents should enjoy the breather while it lasts. The forecast is that air quality will remain ``good'' in coming days, Leung said.

Bloomberg

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