Stop sitting on solutions for cleaner roadside air
Roadside air quality has worsened in the first quarter of this year. Data from the Environmental Protection Department showed that the air pollution index reached very high levels 34 per cent of the time, compared with 11.9 per cent of the time during the first quarter of 2010 - a threefold increase.
The official response was to blame the untypically dry and sunny weather. Weather does play a part, but officials were not being honest enough to admit they had not done enough to control the sources of roadside air pollution, the main culprit being ageing diesel vehicles, including buses.
This pollution is exacerbated by the uneven use of the three cross-harbour tunnels and the street canyon effect created by wall-like buildings erected along narrow roads, which existing legislation seems unable to control. These facts have been acknowledged by Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah, yet the government still chooses not to act.
The Environment Bureau has already spent HK$6 million on consultancy work to find solutions to the problem, and the consultant has fulfilled the task by tabling suggestions for consideration. So why is our government still sitting on a basket full of solutions with its arms crossed?
The government of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen should not leave it to the next administration to take action. Instead, Yau should start promoting the most effective measures to the public.
Financial disincentives can work. The government should raise the annual licence fees for commercial diesel vehicles that fall below the Euro III standard, and increase vehicle emission inspections to at least twice a year from the current annual check. The licence fee structure should also be based on emission levels to demonstrate the 'polluter pays' principle.
For franchised buses, the government's trial scheme of fitting selective catalytic reduction systems to cut nitrogen oxides can only deal with part of the problem. The main concerns are the ageing fleet of high-emission buses that do not meet the Euro III standard, the duplication of bus routes and the large number of near-empty buses running on the roads during off-peak hours. Rationalising bus routes would improve air quality significantly but, to make this work, all political parties would have to fully support the proposal in various district councils to counteract those district councillors who simply vote against any cuts to routes.
In the long term, reducing congestion is also an effective way to improve air quality as a smooth traffic flow means less stop-start driving and less engine idling. Low-emission zones and vehicle labelling should be another part of the solution.
Major mainland cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have already implemented a vehicle labelling system to control high-emission vehicles in the city centre. In these cities, diesel vehicles which do not meet the China National Standard III (equivalent to Euro III) are restricted from entering designated low-emissions zones.
Instead of blaming the weather, Hong Kong officials should focus on pushing political parties and the business sector to accept more stringent air policy measures.
The Ombudsman recently announced that it has upheld Friends of the Earth's complaint against the Environment Bureau for delaying the release of the revised air quality objectives. Therefore, it is vital that the bureau give us a timetable for the release of the revised standards, which will drive improvement measures.
After all, a responsible government should not continue to expose its citizens to chronic health risks stemming from our ever-deteriorating roadside air quality.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of Friends of the Earth (HK)