Idling exemptions benefit the polluter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 September, 2010, 12:00am

Let us stipulate that the administration and the Environment Bureau really want to make a difference in the quality of the air and environment in general. So what, then, is the public to think about the latest changes in environmental proposals? On the same day the government revealed it was considering even more exemptions against the idling engine regulation, it also announced that the coupon scheme to supply households with energy-saving light bulbs, which it rigorously defended against criticism, had been shelved, on the basis that it violated the 'user-pays' principle.

One way to look at it is that the bureau does little or shoddy research before it puts out a new policy and has to make drastic last-minute amendments, or shelve the proposal altogether, before any damage is done; another is that it puts out perfectly well-researched policy proposals, but legislates such diluted versions of the original idea that it will have little, or no effect. Either way, public confidence in the government over environment issues cannot be high.

On Tuesday, the government revealed it was now considering extending the exemption to the idling engine ban to all taxis waiting in the 278 queues around Hong Kong. Minibus drivers are feeling aggrieved that they did not receive such generous exemptions. No doubt, if ordinary drivers had a union that could threaten the minister with more sauna sessions, they would be complaining, too.

The government chose to legislate against idling engines after attempts to encourage drivers to turn off their engines voluntarily failed. It was recognition that the only way to change human behaviour is to legislate and penalise. But instead, the government is now backing down on the ban precisely because taxi drivers are refusing to change their behaviour. What was an initiative to change human behaviour has turned into a policy that rewards those refusing to change. Once this idling engine regulation is passed, which could end up specifying that taxis drivers do not need to turn off their engines, cabbies will effectively be licensed to keep engines running. Apparently, all users must pay, but polluters do not.