Government must do more to improve air quality

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 7:12am

Just how bad is our air quality? The answer can be found when you sniff it or take a look at the skyline. Those who need more evidence can turn to the damning report by the Audit Commission on the government's efforts to clean up the air. The existing air quality objectives have, according to the watchdog, never been fully achieved since their introduction in 1987. Our nitrogen dioxide level is 36 to 279 per cent higher than that in Sydney, London and New York. The verdict is a slap in the face for officials who have boasted of their achievements in combatting air pollution over the years.

The Environmental Protection Department will spend HK$627 million on managing air quality in the current financial year. But whether it is value for money is open to debate. It is shocking that the performance target for the Air Pollution Index - not exceeding a reading of 100 for a year - has not been met since the target was set in 2006. The number of days on which the index was above 100 rose from 74 in 2007 to 175 last year.

The worsening trend is hardly surprising, as the auditor points out that government schemes aimed at replacing polluting vehicles have been ineffective. At present, two in five commercial diesel vehicles are still highly polluting. Efforts to reduce roadside emissions by cutting down bus trips are also disappointing. Only 1.1 per cent of bus trips have been reduced in three busy locations over the past three years.

The picture painted by the watchdog is indeed much gloomier than we had expected. Assuming the auditor's findings are accurate, we have to ask why such a comprehensive stock-taking exercise has been undertaken by an independent watchdog rather than the department. That it has made itself a target for criticism by the commission is not just an irony. It shows it has failed to fulfil its role as the guardian of public and environmental health.

Earlier, the government claimed credit for meeting the targets of a joint emissions reduction campaign with the Guangdong government in 2010. But it would be meaningless, if not misleading, to boast about how much we have achieved at the regional level yet gloss over the failure to reach our own objectives on a day-to-day basis for decades. As the watchdog says, the department should be well aware of its own consultant's advice that a more stringent air quality regime can help reduce hospital admissions and improve life expectancy. The government should seriously consider the auditor's suggestions and strengthen measures to improve air quality.