How far should city go to make ferries green?
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The 21st century has turned out to be anything but plain sailing for the Star ferries. First the historic icons were moved to a new pier farther away from its catchment area for passengers in Central. Then the demolition of the old pier to make way for reclamation development sparked an outcry about destruction of heritage and collective memory. Now its trusty but environmentally incorrect old engines have been found unable to adapt well to 'green' fuel.
That raises questions about what is to be done, which could start another argument. After 45 years, should the ferries be replaced, and would 21st century boats at a 21st century pier really be the same? Would it be practicable to fit such old vessels with environmentally friendly engines, or to fit equipment to clean the emissions? Who should pay? To complicate matters, the current operator's right to run a financially problematic service expires next year.
Irony is to be found in the new dilemma, so soon after the Queen's Pier controversy. Plenty of environmentally conscious people are to be found among the mainly young crowd that turned out to protest against the removal of the pier. What would they have the government do now - turn a blind eye to small polluters, or find a way to make them environmentally correct, whatever the cost?
The government offers financial incentives to the public and transport operators to switch to LPG or vehicles of lower polluting emissions. It claims some credit for lower pollution. Using taxpayers' money to make the ferries squeaky clean, however, would not make any difference to overall air quality that we could ever tell.
There is no question that marine and port emissions contribute to Hong Kong's air pollution. They are not, however, the main causes. The little Star ferries are, therefore, minor suspects.
Today, the Star ferries are mainly tourist attractions, having lost their previous function as a major means of cross-harbour transport to road and rail. As we contemplate their future, one of the questions to ask is how much the community is prepared to pay to preserve this lovely anachronism and help it meet the environmental requirements of the 21st century.