Vehicle owners can't shirk their responsibility in polluter-pays society

Tiffany Leung calls on owners of polluting vehicles to do their part to cut emissions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 3:41am

With the chief executive's policy address approaching, discussions abound that the government may take a "carrot and stick" approach to combat Hong Kong's notorious roadside pollution - by limiting the number of old commercial diesel vehicles allowed on our roads and subsidising the cost of replacement vehicles.

Just how much should the subsidy be? Industry stakeholders have asked the government to cover at least 30 per cent of the cost of a new vehicle. A timely question to ask is: who should be paying for pollution?

When a man falls ill while breathing in the fumes emitted by a diesel truck, he pays the doctor's bill while society pays the larger opportunity cost of his missing a day's work. When calculating what it takes to operate a truck, one can count the fuel, maintenance, insurance and licence fee, but the true cost will be far higher when the impact on public health and the economy are taken into account.

Citizens have long suffered the damage imposed on them by polluters - the premature deaths, the hospital days, the doctor visits and the hours of lost productivity. The amount grows year by year.

Economic development has come at the cost of our quality of life. But, now, there is hope that the money gained can be used to buy back blue skies and better protection of public health.

The government is offering a subsidy for cleaner vehicles. It is now up to the vehicle owners to take responsibility for the pollution they are causing and accept the idea that a polluter should pay. This means replacing their old vehicles as soon as possible and ensuring regular maintenance.

The polluter-pays principle is not popular in a society that prioritises economic development. The public good takes a back seat and resources are commonly misused in the pursuit of growth. In Hong Kong, we now face the consequences of our actions - a city with some of the worst air pollution levels in the world.

However, the city is slowly realising the strain we've been putting on the environment, as evidenced by the proposed charge for waste disposal that the majority of Hongkongers support. Charging a fee for waste disposal creates an incentive for people to generate less waste.

A certain amount of pollution is the cost of a good life, but without effective policies, too much pollution will be produced. If we agree that we should pay to treat our water and waste, then why not air?

Making a polluter-pays principle part of the fabric of Hong Kong society may mean that we all have to pay more in the short term, but by reflecting the true costs of pollution, behavioural changes can be made that will put us on the path towards a sustainable future for the next generation.

Tiffany Leung is social media officer at the Clean Air Network