Hong Kong air pollution

Exemptions undermine efforts to clean up air

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 3:07pm

Hong Kong is well known around the world for its beautiful harbour views. Unfortunately, these views are too often clouded by smog. Air pollution is endangering the health of residents and deterring some visitors and foreign professionals from coming to our city. A proposed new ban on idling motor engines is a small step in the right direction. But it contains so many exemptions that, if enacted, its effects will be curtailed; enforcement will also be difficult and confusing.

The revised ban will allow drivers a three-minute grace period to turn off their engines before they are slapped with a HK$320 ticket. To placate the taxi and minibus trades, more exemptions have been introduced. These include the first five taxis at a taxi stand and the first two minibuses at a minibus stand. But if the minibuses are red-topped, the third one with at least one passenger and the one behind it - a total of four red minibuses - can leave their engines idling. If enacted, it is likely there will always be at least one person sitting in the third minibus; whether the person really is a passenger is another matter. The exemptions amount to a major concession to the trade groups because most taxi and minibus stands rarely have more than those numbers of vehicles waiting in queues. They are a face-saving attempt by the government to get the law passed by stepping back from a more stringent ban. Also, the three-minute grace period is a recipe for disputes and confrontations.

Clamping down on idling engines should be one of the easier measures to put in place to combat pollution. The aim, surely, is to prevent drivers from allowing their engines to idle. But if even this piece of legislation has to be undermined by so many exemptions, it is difficult to see the government making swift decisions on tougher anti-pollution measures. For example, it's firmly established that roadside air pollution from vehicles is a significant health threat and franchised buses are a major culprit. Officials have yet to seriously address this problem.

In many ways, drafting new and controversial laws has become a mirror process of the way the government now formulates policies. It panders to so many interest groups that any proposal, however worthwhile, ends up being watered down. This was the case with the smoking ban; it is so with anti-racism laws.

A law is only effective if it can be enforced. The failure to adequately enforce the smoking ban in restaurants and bars illustrates this. Similar problems are likely to arise if the proposed law on idling engines is passed.

To be sure, the legislative process always involves some bargaining and give and take. But there can only be so much watering down before the public good, its ultimate aim, becomes compromised. There have been too many occasions when political expediency appears to have had the upper hand. This is not the way to make good laws.

Idling engines are a bad habit among drivers, especially professional ones. Education and publicity campaigns have clearly not worked. That's why legislation with penalties is needed. But the transport groups have exaggerated any effort to change it as a threat to their livelihoods. The government has given in to their pressure, if not necessarily their argument. The proposed ban is better than nothing. It will, at least, enable the government to claim it is doing something. But it is far from sufficient to tackle the root causes of air pollution threatening our future.