Hong Kong’s air pollution problem is known to the world. Air pollution levels soared to record level highs of 500 at monitoring stations a number of times in recent years. The Clean Air Network (CAN) is one of the key NGOs pushing the government for better air quality and educating the public about the health impacts of air pollution in Hong Kong. We talk to Joanne Ooi, the CEO of CAN, about her organization and CAN’s lobbying efforts in air pollution.
Ecozine: What led you to your involvement with the CAN?
Joanne: It started from The Air We Breathe clean air conference in January 2009 which was put together by Civic Exchange, Christine Loh’s NGO. At the time it just dawned on me that there was no NGO actually addressing what the public wants to know most about air pollution, namely health impacts, and I came away from the conference thinking I would do it myself. I became interested in the topic and I was first going to launch my own NGO and then I talked to Tony Hedley, who’s the leading expert on public health and air pollution in Hong Kong and a friend of the CEO of the company I was working at, which was a biotech company. He told me that I needed Christine’s buy-in in order for this to work since I needed to borrow the content from her website to put on my website, and she co-opted me into a project that was already underway called the Clean Air Coalition. The raison d’etre of this was to network everybody to create a signal to noise ratio that would be sufficiently high. That’s how I actually got involved.
Ecozine: With your vast experience in marketing, you’ve brought some really interesting campaigns to CAN to get its message across to people - such as the large-scale petition in partnership with restaurants and other outlets. Could you describe more about these marketing strategies?
Joanne: I’ve taken my whole private sector marketing experience and decided to deploy it for this issue because it demands a much more consumer approach of devising a hook which is going to interest the public enough to engage them in a more active way. I call them guerrilla tactics because being an NGO, you have no choice with no budget but to stretch your resources by doing daring, brave and innovative things… and that’s my bread and butter. It’s to get blood from the rock. We do things that are often unprecedented in the NGO world. It gives us a lot of traction because of the novelty sometimes. We can go through consumer channels and we can derive a lot of attention from the public and the media by devising ingenious ways to communicate these messages.
Ecozine: What is the role of social media in communicating these messages?
Joanne: Social media is totally critical to our effort. Social media is the only way for an organization such as an NGO to leverage itself effectively because of the lack of resources plus because of the grassroots movement we’re trying to inspire, there’s no better way than to generate these unvarnished, sincere and spontaneous messages with genuine personality to them. In today’s world, people need to feel that there is a human being behind everything that is going on behind an organization.
Ecozine: The government AQOs (Air Quality Objectives) are being reviewed in Hong Kong. What are the key changes you would like to see as a result of this review?
Joanne: Specifically, we want to see a tightening of the overall standards. The AQOs set the maximum recommended guidelines for seven pollutants of which we’re very concerned, with four which are the ones that are monitored by the WHO (World Health Organization) the most. We hope to see tighter guidelines because those are the drivers for business policy change. With these tighter standards, the government can actually wave a stick at the private sector and say, “you need to meet this SO2 guideline so you will need to use hybrid buses,” for example. Environmental cleanup of air pollution also needs to be a higher fiscal priority in the Budget. In terms of execution, we want to see the phase-out of the oldest diesel vehicles, buses and trucks, which cause the emissions that are most dangerous to human health.
Ecozine: What are the key barriers for the government to set stricter standards for air quality?
Joanne: There’s a lack of LegCo support. Furthermore, the EPD has had a series of bad experiences where it tried to pass more aggressive policies to no avail because of resistance. They have a gun-shy attitude when it comes to suggesting more aggressive policies. We need to break that cycle by getting public opinion behind tighter and better quality management.
Ecozine: How far has the government progressed on changing the AQO’s?
Joanne: 2/3 of the 19 measures proposed to achieve the AQO’s are already underway. The legislation is actually being written or in the process for LegCo to be considered. I expect them to be introduced before the end of next year. But whether it has teeth to make a difference… the devil is in the details. The EPD said the AQO’s will be finalized before the end of 2010, but I’m not sure whether they will be able to stick to that timeframe.
Ecozine: With roadside pollution posing the largest threat to Hong Kong’s people health, what are the most immediate priorities in changing air quality policies?
Joanne: We want to see an early replacement of the dirtiest buses and trucks. We are still trying to figure out what the best financial way is. We are still trying to figure out whether it will be the government leasing buses or franchise bus operators to purchase more newer Euro class vehicles or even natural gas or hybrid vehicles. The government has proposed a subsidy scheme but the subsidy is not high enough for it to be a genuine inducement for the owner of the vehicle. We’re working with the government to push the subsidy to be more than the current 18% which has been proposed to phase out Euro II vehicles. The subsidy for pre-Euro and Euro I vehicles to get them off the roads currently in place expires March 31. We need to provide financial incentives for the owners of the dirtiest trucks to get them off the roads. It could be a scrapping incentive or higher subsidies. The response has been terrible for the current program. Passed in 2007, $3.2 billion was earmarked but only $600 million was actually taken up. The truck owners said that 13-18% is not enough to make it worth their while to actually take advantage of the subsidy. Those who have replaced the vehicle did because it was falling apart and was going to be getting off the roads imminently anyways. It hasn’t been very successful at all. We need a subsidy that is a juicier carrot. Right now, we have an unappetizing carrot and no stick. The government is proposing a small carrot and a featherweight stick.
Ecozine: How are the power generators faring in decreasing emissions?
Joanne: CLP and Hong Kong Electric have already agreed to implement scrubber technology which should be in place by the end of 2011, which will bring down between 80-90% of SO2 so that’s a substantial abatement and that’s victory on that account, in terms of emissions from power generators in Hong Kong. I don’t think renewable energy technologies are common yet. We tweeted about the wind farm off of Lamma that will supply only1%, a tiny percentage, of Hong Kong’s energy. The major shift has to happen in the switch from coal to gas and that’s going to substantially make a difference. Renewable energy is not really on the menu right now, so that’s where we are. It’s like asking an infant to run. Compared to the transport sector, it has already been a great step.
Ecozine: Is there anything being done to set stricter standards for shipping related air pollution?
Joanne: Shipping causes a lot of exceedances of SO2, especially in the districts where the ports are. To get an ECA (emissions control area) in Hong Kong, national cooperation with China will be needed. The EPA has had talks with Guangdong, but a sovereign act is needed to ratify ECA under international law so it will take lobbying Beijing to make any progress on that account. Short of that, it would be difficult. The Hong Kong Shipowners Association is willing to adopt harbour measures, but only on a levelled playing field. Shenzhen port would need to adopt the same measures simultaneously in order for port owners to not to be disadvantaged. These are not low-hanging fruit. Those are basically the two legal solutions for abatement for reduction of marine emissions. Either an ECA which is a coordinated area, or it is true that Hong Kong can within its own waters require tighter emission guidelines - but that may cause a financial disadvantage to ports here. Both are difficult, so that’s not heavily focused in the first phase of our campaign. The most progressive countries are definitely in Europe. The Baltic Sea, that was the first ECA of the world. Europe is definitely the most progressive, followed by Australia and New Zealand. Tighter standards for shipping have happened with the ECA that will be implemented on the west coast of the US under Obama’s administration. They’ve been tightening standards for ozone and shipping. I also want to add that China has a very environmentally friendly regime. China has earmarked 3% of its GDP on environmental protection and Hong Kong is nowhere close to that. That’s a country that is recognizing the dire urgency of environmental cleanup. Focusing back on ECA, there are two types of jurisdiction: one is on the sovereign waters, and the other is where the owners register their boats, and there are places that have lax standards which owners take advantage of.
Ecozine: On an individual level, what can people do to make a difference to our current situation in Hong Kong?
Joanne: I think air pollution is comparable to an infectious disease in terms of the amount of casualty. You don’t see people dropping dead on the street from it. But in terms of the magnitude it has, it is an epidemic that is 100%, meaning everybody is affected by it. People can actually make a difference and we’ve already made a difference by educating people and getting them to care. Speaking out makes a difference. Everything percolates into a tipping point for society. Individual action - I can’t underscore enough the importance of it. Every single voice counts.