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
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)