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Fight Over Hong Kong Power Plants Highlights China's Pollution Woes


By Nishika Patel
World Politics Review Exclusive
June 1, 2007


Hong Kong -- As China grapples with the problem of producing enough
electricity to meet the needs of its staggering economic growth, a
pollution crisis is beginning to plume over Hong Kong.

Power generation in China's southern province of Guangdong has failed to
keep pace with rapid economic development -- forcing it to turn to Hong
Kong for electricity. As a result, China Light and Power (CLP), Asia's
largest private power utility and the biggest polluter in Hong Kong, is
attracting local political criticism for selling an increasing amount of
excess electricity to mainland China for profit.

In 2006, electricity sales to China accounted for 13.2 percent of CLP's
total Hong Kong sales, nearly doubling from 7.2 per cent in 2002.

The situation has prompted a harsh reaction from Audrey Eu, leader of Hong
Kong's pro-democracy Civic Party.

"I would like to see them stop selling electricity to China," said Eu. "I
do not think there is a lot of benefit to Hong Kong. Of course the company
makes a profit but it's not worth the cost of polluting Hong Kong."

A CLP spokesman said the sales were driven by electricity shortages on the
mainland. The spokesman added that CLP's service to the mainland is better
for China's environment over all because its power generation is much
cleaner than mainland stations.

CLP emits a staggering 46 percent of Hong Kong's carbon dioxide emissions
and 60 percent of the city's sulphur dioxide emissions through its
gas-fired Black Point station and coal-fired Castle Peak station -- 60
percent of which is owned by America's Exxon Mobil.

Environmental groups have been stepping up pressure on CLP to stop
mainland sales in a bid to improve local air pollution and combat climate
change.

"Hong Kong is being polluted at the expense of business with China," said
Christian Masset, chairman of Clear The Air, a volunteer organization
dedicated to improving air quality in Hong Kong.

However, Professor Tze Wai Wong from the department of family and
community medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said it is
unfair to point the finger at CLP for mainland sales.

"Hong Kong has been exporting the dirty industry of manufacturing," he
said. "From the 1990's there has been an exodus of factories to China and
that has affected the people there. It is economic development that makes
this happen. We must get power stations to clean up though."

About 70 percent of mainland China's electricity is generated from
coal-fired plants, nearly twice the world average. Coal is the most
abundant fossil fuel on the mainland, but it also the dirtiest --
producing the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, the
latter of which is also a massive air pollutant.

Severe pollution has largely been a mainland problem, but it is now
spreading to Hong Kong.

Critics of Hong Kong CLP's mainland sales say the company is able to
over-produce electricity due to a government agreement known as the Scheme
of Control. The agreement was drafted in the 1980s, and it guarantees
power companies an 11 percent rate of return on new investment, a
provision that was passed during the city's economic boom.

But the Scheme of Control, which is under review for next year, has been
called outdated in light of the city's current slower pace of growth.

With the Scheme of Control, "there is an incentive to use more electricity
and earn more -- it encourages the supplier to provide a constant supply,"
the Civic Party's Eu said.

"For some years there was a reduction in coal use and a greater use of
cleaner energy by CLP," she continued. "But in recent years, since they
have been selling more electricity to mainland China, they have been
burning more fossil fuel, which has created more pollutants in recent
years. They should be forced to sell clean electricity."

Greenpeace says an over-optimistic government forecast of the city's
growth in the 1980's encouraged CLP to boost production and build a new
little-needed power plant at Castle Peak -- formerly one of the world's
largest coal-fired plants.

"CLP has too much reserve power -- which is extra power stored for changes
in power demand," said Frances Yeung, a Greenpeace climate and energy
campaigner. "The problem is CLP has too much of this for power consumption
growth."

In addition to mainland sales, environmentalists also fear that
controversial proposals by CLP to build a gas terminal on the isolated
Sokos Island will not only wreck the island's marine park, which is home
to the Chinese White Dolphin, but also will add to gas emissions in Hong
Kong.

CLP claims it is building the terminal due to a dwindling gas supplies at
its mainland gas field in Yacheng, but that claim has been questioned by
green groups.

Yeung, who is suspicious of CLP's motives, said: "It may increase gas
burning but at the same time maintain burning the same amount of coal and
sell the power generated to the mainland.

"Natural gas is not a solution as combustion still produces carbon dioxide
emissions. It is lower than coal but if they do not reduce coal burning it
will have no effect."

The Government is examining CLP's proposals, looking at their
environmental costs and the supply situation at Yacheng.

CLP's activities have come under close scrutiny due to the widespread
public concern over air pollution in Hong Kong and greater worldwide
attention to climate change.

"Air pollution is a very serious problem in Hong Kong," said Anthony
Hedley, a professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong.
"Daily pollutant levels far exceed Hong Kong's own air quality standards
and, according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, Hong Kong's
air pollution is out of control."

Professor Hedley said if Hong Kong's air pollution levels were brought
down to WHO standards, 1,600 deaths could be avoided each year, along with
6.8 million doctor visits and 64,000 bed days in hospitals.

Air pollution is also denting the city's competitiveness in attracting and
retaining highly skilled workers, according to an International Monetary
Fund report released last year.

Greenpeace says the social and environmental costs of CLP's emissions rose
to $3.9 billion in 2006.

Nishika Patel is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

 

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