Environment, GBA

Big bay data

Why an emissions database is needed in the GBA


Hazy skyline in Guangzhou

Pollution is a problem that doesn’t respect borders, as American scientists highlighted again in a study of their national parks two years ago. Ozone levels were well above normal in the summer months in places like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon – with more than half of the smog blowing in from faraway Asia.

Back in China policymakers have been trying to get to grips with pollution in the towns and cities that make up the Greater Bay Area (GBA). The outline development plan for the region (nine main cities in Guangdong, plus Hong Kong and Macau) cites green goals as a priority. ‘Ecological conservation’ is mentioned time and again, and the blueprint was updated last week with more specific targets for the three years ahead.

Among the commitments: the elimination of black and smelly water in urban areas by next year; an expectation of 90% of days of ‘good’ air quality in the main cities, with average PM2.5 concentrations of 34 micrograms per cubic metre or lower; and new targets for trees across the region, with forest coverage of 52% of the land area.

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

The region has been trying to clean up its act, initially with local-level controls that put dirtier companies out of business but more recently in pursuit of a structural shift in the economy, where industries like electric vehicles are championed, and smokestack sectors are moved out or closed down.

An air quality network 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.

It isn’t all good news, however, with the latest results suggesting that ozone concentrations were at 58 micrograms per cubic metre last year, the worst since 2011.

Green groups in Hong Kong are unimpressed, pointing out that ozone concentration has increased by more than a fifth since measurements began, and the city’s air pollution chief did little to improve the mood in admitting that Hong Kong wouldn’t be able to 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 situations like these show that an emissions inventory has to be created at a regional level, enabling a more coordinated understanding of where the pollution is coming from. At the moment this intelligence just doesn’t exist, veteran analyst James Ockenden said earlier this year, making it impossible to prioritise the policy responses to the smoggy air.

“We don’t know if the fine particle ‘background pollution’ choking Hong Kong is predominantly from 19 million Guangdong cars, from Shenzhen electric bus brake pads, from chemical plants burning coal, from coal-powered plants, from China’s marine traffic, from the 15 million smokers in the province, from farmers burning fields, or something else more surprising altogether,” he complained.

Pinpointing the causes of pollution across the different cities in the GBA is going to create political challenges. The worst offenders will worry about being pressed to close their dirtier industries, for instance, or being made to pay carbon taxes in compensation. But the green lobby says a detailed inventory is desperately needed if the problem is going to be properly addressed.

What’s more, the absence of an inventory is embarrassing for a region that is styling itself as a heartland of greener, innovative thinking, Ockenden says. “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?” he asked.

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