Thirty-five pairs of shoes in a graveyard: a graphic demonstration of the number of weekly air pollution deaths in Hong Kong, estimated by Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists who held an event at Hong Kong Cemetery today (28 June) to raise awareness of the deadly issue.
The group says the government has failed the city through lack of ambition and transparency, and urges an end to the current “business as usual” model.
XR member Pedro Dominguez says few people are aware of the number of casualties from air pollution, “There’s literally dozens of deaths every week,” he says. “Visualizing them with pairs of shoes is eye-opening, and hopefully a trigger for action.”
Member Fred Macias says the government hides the deadly impact from the public. “We see this response from government, just publishing reports, downsizing the actual problem – in all those reports from the Environment Bureau, you never see the number of deaths, it’s only scientists who have done that and compiled those figures,” he says.
Macias says there needs to be more discussion, in public, on the air quality issue. But he also says low turnout at events such as last year’s public consultations on the Air Quality Objectives Review reveals a lack of government education on the problems.
“It’s really the responsibility of the government to mobilise the citizens,” he says. “When you don’t tell people there is an issue, and it’s really serious, then people are not going to look at it. How is air pollution taught in public schools, what kind of environment education is there in Hong Kong? It’s quite limited. And if you don’t have that general awareness, it’s going to be really difficult to mobilise people.”
Also joining the action today was XR member Alice Sze, a Hong Konger recently returned from London where she took part in the XR October Rebellion. “The London event was huge,” she says. “But the environmental movement in Hong Kong is quiet, it’s niche. I think we have to be a bit more loud and radical, as Extinction Rebellion has shown in other places, to peacefully demonstrate and recapture people’s attention,” she says.
Sze says it’s easy to lose track of what “nature” really means when living in a city like Hong Kong – plus, she says, the city has now become dominated by the single issue of Hong Kong’s governance, to the detriment of the environment. “It truly is a shame. I only know one or two politicians who care about the environment, but most of them just care about the single issue now.”
Transport is one area the government has let the city down, says the group. “The city continues to rely heavily on diesel for buses and ferries, despite the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifying diesel in 2012 as ‘carcinogenic to humans’. The many benefits of walking are repeatedly pointed out by experts across the board, yet leaders insist on designing a car-centric environment that harms the entire population. The same goes with cycling as the Transport Department opposes its usage in urban areas, and actively seizes nearly 15,000 bikes a year while denying the right to park clearly stated in the Road Traffic Regulations. With a large majority of public transport users, policymakers have the duty to take the lead in creating a car-free city,” it says.
The estimated number of weekly deaths comes from HKU research, published in 2011 by the late Professor Anthony Hedley and colleagues. That research found the government’s then-proposed air quality standards would, compared to stricter World Health Organisation Air Quality Guidelines, be associated with an additional 1,860 annual deaths, 92,745 hospital bed-days and 5.2 million doctor visits, with a cost to the community of about HK$20 billion.
The government has since tightened legislation, phasing out the dirtiest diesel engines, introducing cleaner fuels for marine vessels, and improving electricity generation standards: new public health calculations and analysis based on Hong Kong’s present Air Quality Guidelines and the WHOAQGs are yet to be completed. However, the Hedley Index, named for Professor Hedley, calculates a daily death toll and economic impact based on actual pollution data.