We all know of the health issues associated with high air pollution, but the city of Hong Kong is beginning to see another worrying effect of high pollution levels. A brain drain, people are beginning to leave this famous city in search of cleaner air. The city's air pollution regularly exceeds levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. By some estimates air quality is three times worse than London or New York. Much of the air pollution is generated by the coal-fired power plants and smoke-stacks across the border in China's industrial south, but the traffic fumes from the city's increasingly congested streets play an increasingly large role.
Of course this is not a mass exodus of workers and the city is not on the brink of collapse. The economy is thriving on Hong Kong's position as gateway to China, and common complaints from companies trying to attract international staff are sky-high rents and a lack of international school places. However the city's worsening air quality is beginning to have a noticeable effect. Once they have found them companies are finding it harder to retain international staff. A survey of more than 200 international and local companies operating in Hong Kong released in May by the office space provider Regus, suggested that three out of four companies said that the poor air quality was making it harder for them to retain as well as attract overseas employees. Another poll suggests that the issue is not just confined to foreign workers. Figures recently released by think tank Civic Exchange found that one in four local Hong Kong residents has considered emigrating because of air pollution, that is close to two million people.
It is all adding up to an erosion of Hong Kong's appeal as a place to live and work. The issue is felt particularly keenly in industries such as banking where there are similar opportunities in nearby cities like Singapore that have much better air quality. Australian Sara Foster moved to Singapore from Hong Kong with her toddler son and husband in May and says the difference in air quality is tangible. Her husband, who works long hours outdoors as a tennis coach, no longer needs to use medication to control his asthma. "Air pollution was definitely a factor in our move," she says. "You don't get that heavy smog hanging over the city the way we did in Hong Kong."
And it is getting worse. Honk Kong's city's Air Pollution Index (API) was at the 'very high' level on the government's own API scale for 34% of the time period January to March this year, compared with 11% in the same period in 2010. At 'very high' levels, children, the elderly and those with heart problems are advised to stay indoors. In an American Chamber of Commerce survey published in January, 68% of its members said Honk Kong air pollution had worsened over the past 12 months and 48% knew of professionals and their families leaving Hong Kong in pursuit of cleaner air.
The government says it is likely to meet a target to cut emissions of major pollutants, by at least 20% from 1997 levels, by 2010 - largely by retro-fitting the city's largest coal-fired power plant with emission control devices. And a law banning drivers from idling engines will finally take effect in September this year after 10 years of heated debate.
However critics say that the law - which allows for 20 exemptions - will do little to ease roadside pollution, which is caused by trucks and buses with outmoded engines. "It will make only a marginal difference, if any," says Joanne Ooi, of the pressure group Clean Air Network. "The government has been weak on this issue and needs to do much, much more if it wants to keep the city competitive in the long term."