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  • Dec 23, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

Can C.Y. Leung and Carrie Lam shake officials into action on air pollution?

Mayling Chan says it will take more than just political will at the top to improve Hong Kong's air quality; everyone in society, including intransigent civil servants and lawmakers, needs to be on board

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:24am

The Environmental Protection Department last month announced that the city had achieved its overall clean-air targets under a joint scheme with Guangdong province, citing the results of an air pollution inventory. The Audit Commission report released last week, however, painted a gloomier picture than expected, saying that the existing air-quality objectives had never been fully achieved since they were introduced in 1987.

Sadly, since 2006, the department has never met its target for the Air Pollution Index of not exceeding the "very high" level of 100 on any day in a year. And the number of days in a year with excessive pollution has risen from 74 in 2007 to 175 last year.

Taking a more holistic perspective, the report put both the Transport and Housing Bureau and the Environmental Protection Department on the spot for not imposing stricter fuel standards on ocean-going and local vessels.

Although the report came as a surprise to many, it would not have been a shock for Wong Kam-sing, the Environment Secretary, who just four months into his term told some green groups frankly that the take-up rate had been low - a mere 10 per cent - for the scheme to replace commercial diesel vehicles. Hence, it was not expected to be effective.

There are still some 50,000 highly polluting vehicles on our roads, including 17,000 diesel vehicles that are more than 17 years old. This is why Wong sounded out the option of phasing out commercial diesel vehicles when they are 15 years old, to tackle our health-threatening roadside pollution. As environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai said, such an achievable solution was "low-hanging fruit" that would provide an immediate improvement.

We have sufficient reason to believe that both Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor have the political will to protect public health.

Leung mentioned the health impacts of harmful emissions from vehicles and ships in his speech to the Legislative Council in October, and in his inaugural speech on July 1 he emphasised that his team needed to "address issues from a high-level perspective and with inter-departmental and cross-sector collaboration", indicating that red tape and a silo mentality work against the political will to improve our living conditions.

Even Lam, in her consultation session with green groups this month, assured attendees that she was on top of a co- ordinating mission to tackle the health effects of roadside pollution.

So, what is missing if we have the high-level political will? Can red tape be such a formidable obstacle?

In the last administration, a proposal was tabled for low-emission zones in Central, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, with the idea being that high-emission buses and vehicles could be barred from entering these areas. However, this plan required collaboration with the Transport Department, so it is yet to be realised.

But, what if past negative examples could be overcome? What if, under Lam's leadership, the tendency of bureaucracies to prohibit co-operation between departments could be gradually substituted for a reformed culture with a sense of collective mission and accountability within the administration? The whole of society would benefit through a reduced risk of cardio-pulmonary illness associated with air pollution and the lower financial burden on the taxpayer-funded health care system.

Drivers and passengers surely also want their health protected. In July, we measured the fine particles inside Hong Kong buses in various districts and found that the average hourly concentration reached 53.11 micrograms per cubic metre. That is more than twice the 25 micrograms per cubic metre recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Another question has to be: which stakeholders are willing to sacrifice public and individual health for something else? Our lawmakers, for example? Will they sacrifice public health for votes from some of their specific constituencies?

Or will they share a collective vision for our city? We do not know yet; we must put it to the test. We cannot succeed in protecting our own health if we lack the political will to do so.

Now that the government has a correct diagnosis and an effective prescription for improving Hong Kong's air quality, will they approve the appropriate legislation and necessary finances?

Let's hope the whole of society is committed to a significant change and that when the Audit Commission does another body-check in two years' time, it will find that our world-class city can match that reputation with world-quality air.

Mayling Chan is CEO of Friends of the Earth (HK)

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This article is now closed to comments

hkbabylon
unless air pollution is treated as an emergency, nothing will change. It seems that HK departments can be spurred into action only if and when they are dealing with an emergency like SARS. Other cities around the world have successfully tackled air pollution. It's not that difficult because the worst culprits have long been identified. Why is the economic gain of a relatively small sector of our society overriding the common good?
Low emission zones can provide immediate relief. Give priority to pedestrians (the majority of road users!) by widening pavements and narrowing roads, rationalize bus routes and subsidize free bus interchange options (while forcing bus companies to replace older diesel vehicles as a condition for licence renewal). Do not grant licence renewal to old polluting trucks. Tackle marine pollution by imposing a fine on commercial vessels and ferries that use dirty fuel in HK waters. Educate people on the long-term effects of air pollution the way they have been educated about the effect of smoking on their health. Lung cancer is killing more and more non-smokers in HK and yet there is so much complacency and ignorance about the impact of high pollution levels.
ianson
Christine Loh appears to have crossed the line and gone to the other side completely. She'll have a lot of work to do now to prove otherwise.
richardg23
If old diesel commercial vehicles are a concern, ban them. Gov is about making choices, 7m people benefit, 17,000 are slightly out of pocket as they buy a new van. Easy choice.
captam
@"a proposal was tabled for low-emission zones in Central, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, with the idea being that high-emission buses and vehicles could be barred from entering these areas"
Oh yes?. So they want to make it official policy for our down-town streets to be areas for wealthy car owners only. The situation is in fact almost getting like this already with discriminatory ticketing of commercial vehicles, while the chauffeur-driven cars are just warned to move on a few paces and then illegally park again.
hkbabylon
they could pedestrianize these areas, plant trees, install benches. If it works in other cities, why can't it done in HK? They should ban all traffic from some streets. Deliveries can be made during a 2 hours a day slot (usually between 10 and 12am, when traffic is less intense) That's how it works in many cities in Germany and Italy for instance.
Also, why does HK allow old, second-hand Japanese trucks into HK? They have been banned from Japanese roads, but enjoy a second life in HK because delivery companies are too stingy to buy newer models.
rpasea
The appointments of Wong Kam-sing and Christine Loh were right on target. The question is if these 2 have the perseverance to get the bureaucracy to change. We have the money, we have public backing and we have the damning auditor's report but is this enough to effect change in a place like HK where vested interests rule?
wwong888
christine lo's first task on the job was the hold a press conference to support that silly artificial beach. she of all people should know better. its pretty clear she just sold out for a better paycheck. sad. she had promise but chose to make more money being a puppet.

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