Hong Kong air pollution

A green legacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 3:07pm


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Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen still has time to set visionary environmental goals for his ministers and the next chief executive, to leave a green legacy and be remembered as a far-sighted leader.

Amid the debates in society regarding the airport expansion proposal and the judicial review of the plan to build a bridge to Zhuhai and Macau, there are many pressing environmental issues that require bolder steps and more stringent policies.

The air we breathe every day is damaging our health. Our air quality standards are far more permissive than those recommended by the World Health Organisation, and have not been updated since they were set in 1987. It is shameful and ironic that we often hear our government leaders claiming that Hong Kong is an international city, when its air quality is as bad as that in developing countries which cannot afford to use cleaner fuels and greener technologies.

To be an international city, our air quality objectives should be on a par with WHO standards. Tsang should keep his promise, made in May, that new standards will be unveiled this year. It is a shame that, in wealthy Hong Kong, we still have buses and trucks that don't meet modern European emissions standards.

If Tsang does not set a timetable to phase out these polluting vehicles, he owes Hong Kong citizens an explanation as to why these vehicles are being allowed to damage our health. The government has tried using financial incentives to encourage owners of polluting diesel vehicles to take them off the road. But, with no timetable, the take-up rate has been slow.

Stringent air quality objectives are essential for the accuracy of the environmental impact assessment required by law for development projects. If the updated air quality standards are not ready soon, the Airport Authority, for one, could fast-track public consultation for its airport expansion plan and try to push it through, before they are required to conduct a pollution study using stricter standards. If the outmoded air quality benchmarks apply, its environmental impact study could well pass the 'legal test' but it would still fail effective environmental standards; it would not reflect the true environmental impact of the project, which could well harm the health of residents in nearby areas like Tung Chung and Tuen Mun. If this happened, our government would have evaded its responsibility to protect public health.

Perhaps Tsang wants as many major infrastructure projects as possible to be approved or built during his tenure, seeing this as his legacy to Hong Kong people. But he needs to know that if such a legacy comes with huge social and environmental costs, the people will not welcome it. Hong Kong needs a green legacy that can help society flourish in a truly sustainable manner; such vision will be welcomed by people from all walks of life, from hawkers to tycoons. The people of Hong Kong are choking on air pollution and contaminated seafood and vegetables, and are fed up with the ever-increasing amounts of solid waste and blocked air flows due to wall-like buildings. We want you to leave us a healthy and green environment, Mr Tsang.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of general affairs, Friends of the Earth (HK)