Act now on air pollution too
When the government announced on Thursday that the chief executive will break with tradition and deliver his first policy address in January instead of October, we trust Leung Chun-ying looked out of his window and reflected on the view from Government House - or what you could see of it. That would have helped explain why the report on the delay failed to make the front page of this newspaper, while one on the health-threatening level of air pollution that day did.
He has delayed the address to give the government more time to build a partnership with the new Legislative Council to be elected next month. Hopefully he will take the opportunity to raise with lawmakers the urgency of the city's need for a meaningful, effective policy to clean up the air we breathe. He did, after all, list the environment among his government's priorities if elected. There is reason for hope in reports that Christine Loh Kung-wai, public policy think-tank chief and environmental advocate, is to join the government as undersecretary for the environment. Her own credibility will be at stake in the government's performance on the environment.
Reports about extreme pollution events are familiar, but they never fail to shock. This time, experts repeated calls for a new alert system to warn the public about the health risks. Roadside readings in Central - of the air we actually breathe - hovered at or above 190 for 20 hours beginning on Wednesday, peaking at a record for the city of 212 with the exception of a sandstorm in 2010. Causeway Bay was almost as bad. That is off the dial of World Health Organisation guidelines. High readings continued yesterday. Medical authorities say more than 3,000 premature deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution.
It is no good officials continue to blame cross-border air pollution because the main culprit is roadside pollution, especially emissions from the thousands of old buses. It is no good them pointing to Hongkongers' relatively long life expectancy, since this standard was established by people who did not breathe such filthy air. It is no good them pointing to the cost of getting cleaner air, since this ignores the cost to the community of pollution and we can easily afford it anyway. There is simply no excuse for the former government having delayed the introduction of new air quality objectives until 2014, or for adopting standards well below WHO guidelines, or for not having used its powers under existing legislation to introduce new standards sooner.
The chief executive has said action on urgent livelihood issues can be rolled out ahead of the policy address. On second thoughts, action on air pollution that puts the public interest ahead of sectional interests need not wait for the policy address either.