When Leung Chun-ying said he would roll out policies once they were ready, instead of waiting until his maiden policy speech in January, there were doubts as to how many initiatives he could come up with in the meantime. Three months have passed. Even the most vocal critics may agree that the chief executive has so far remained true to his promise. There is no shortage of measures, such as the controversial "locals-only" housing policy, a HK$2,200 monthly handout for elderly and a commission to tackle poverty. But, apparently, one key policy area has yet to be given the attention it deserves - environmental protection.
A report on air pollution in this paper last week has given Leung a timely reminder to act on this front. According to a report card compiled by the government, the city has achieved its overall clean-air targets agreed upon with Guangdong up through 2010. The emission levels of four pollutants were said to have dropped by 30 to 59 per cent compared with readings in 1997. However, roadside air quality and marine air pollution have noticeably worsened in recent years. Vessels belched out 35,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxide in 2010, up 8.3 per cent from 2009. Separately, road transport accounted for 286 tonnes of sulphur dioxide in 2010, up from 271 tonnes the previous year.
It is ironic to see the government congratulating itself on having met the targets, which green activists criticise as nothing to be proud of because the baseline for comparison was too high. But it is comforting to see that officials, admitting that roadside and ship-related air pollution have worsened, have pledged to do more to improve the situation.
Environmental protection is as urgent as any other policy area. Nothing is more important than the air we breathe. The initiatives on the environment promised by the chief executive may not arouse as much interest as housing and welfare. But that does not mean they should be given a lower priority. The recent scheme allowing ships to claim a 50 per cent reduction in port related charges for switching to less-polluting fuel is a good start. We trust the chief executive has not forgotten his campaign promises. The government plans to announce new targets with our neighbouring province for the next stage this year. Given Leung's close ties with the mainland authorities, he can, hopefully, make better use of his influence to come up with more ambitious targets to improve air quality.