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  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 2:53am
CommentInsight & Opinion

First, Hong Kong roads must be rid of polluting vehicles

Christine Loh sets out the priorities to clean up our dirty air, starting with taking the most polluting vehicles off our roads and retrofitting others to cut the harmful emissions that affect the health of thousands of people

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2013, 3:18am

Improving Hong Kong's air quality is a top priority because pollution affects public health. Measures must be strong enough to make a difference.

Most of our daily exposure to air pollution occurs at the roadside. In Hong Kong's dense urban areas, thousands of people are out and about every minute of every day. Many people work at the roadside or their place of business opens onto a busy road. And the windows of homes on the lower floors of a building open not far from these busy thoroughfares.

Moreover, our roads are relatively narrow, with tall buildings on either side. As a result, emissions from vehicle exhausts become trapped. The pollution in these "street canyons" cannot disperse easily, making it a daily health threat.

Hence, our near-term goal is to reduce roadside air pollution and our first targets are high-emission vehicles - diesel commercial vehicles (such as trucks, school buses and tourist coaches), franchised buses, LPG taxis and minibuses.

The most worrying roadside pollutant are the particulates - PM10 and PM2.5 (or particles that are 10 and 2.5 micrometres in diameter or less, respectively) - that arise from combustion in diesel engines. They can penetrate deeply into lung tissues, causing cardiopulmonary disease. The World Health Organisation recently confirmed that diesel particulates are also carcinogenic.

Our key solution deals with the 88,000 diesel vehicles in Hong Kong that do not meet the newer Euro IV emission standards. They make up about two-thirds of the total number of 128,000 diesel vehicles on our roads. Pre-Euro vehicles are now at least 18 years old, and emit 34 times more particulates than the Euro V models; even a Euro III vehicle emits five times more particulates.

The government has set aside HK$10 billion to provide subsidies to the owners of these outdated vehicles. They can either surrender their vehicle under a "cash for clunker" scheme or get a higher amount to replace their old vehicles with new ones. We offer the flexibility of a dual scheme because trade representatives say some owners may not wish to replace their vehicles - some may want to reduce the size of their fleet while others may wish to retire altogether.

The plan is to get these 88,000 polluting vehicles off our roads by a certain time - pre-Euro and Euro I vehicles by January 2016; Euro II vehicles by January 2017; and the rest by January 2019.

Some have said the subsidies were too generous, and that the phasing out would take too long. The truth is, the government is prepared to spend the money to improve public health, and it recognises that the trade needs time to replace such a large number of vehicles. For the plan to succeed, it needs to be feasible.

We have begun discussions with the trade on the details of the scheme. We will also legislate for a maximum life of 15 years for new diesel vehicles, as many other jurisdictions have done.

Another problem we face is the unusually high levels of nitrogen dioxide at our roadsides. There are two main causes - franchised buses and LPG vehicles.

While older franchised buses had particulate filters fitted to them some years ago, their nitrogen dioxide levels need to be lowered if we are to reduce the overall pollution. Fitting a selective catalytic reduction device on Euro II and III buses would enable them to perform like Euro IV and V models. Bus fleets in Europe have done similar retrofits successfully.

The Hong Kong government is proposing to fund the capital cost of these devices and for the franchisees to absorb the operating and maintenance costs. This scheme is estimated to cost HK$550 million and will take about two years to complete.

LPG vehicles are cleaner than diesel vehicles but a large amount of nitrogen dioxide can be emitted if their catalytic converters are defective. This is precisely the problem in Hong Kong. Local studies have shown that many owners of taxis and minibuses are not replacing the devices when they should. An agreement has been reached for the government to cover the cost of new devices on a one-off basis but for the trade to pay for future replacements.

There are currently about 18,000 taxis and 4,350 minibuses, 66 per cent of which are powered by LPG. For vehicles such as these, which cover a high mileage, the catalytic converter needs to be replaced about every 18 months. This scheme will cost HK$150 million and should be completed by 2014.

The above three schemes are end-of-pipe solutions. Other solutions are also needed. For example, the chief executive's policy address called for bus routes to be rationalised. A successful reorganisation of bus numbers, routes and networks should result in shorter travel time, easy interchanges and good service, which will also improve roadside air quality.

The policy address also called for adjustments to cross-harbour tunnel fees, which will improve usage efficiency and relieve congestion.

Yet other solutions require planning changes, such as creating low-emission and pedestrian-only zones. We also have a series of measures to reduce shipping emissions. Hong Kong is a busy port for large oceangoing vessels, river trade vessels as well as local craft, such as ferries and hydrofoils.

Together, their emissions of the three major air pollutants - that is, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and respirable suspended particulates - now exceed those of our power plants.

The policy address proposed mandating a fuel switch at berth for oceangoing vessels, and for onshore power equipment to be built at the new Kai Tak Cruise Terminal. Indeed, our longer-term focus is to work with the mainland so that emissions can be controlled in all the waters of the Pearl River Delta. It's clear from research that significant public health benefits would be reaped from such a move.

To further reduce air pollution, we will explore further reducing local coal-fired electricity generation by about 2020, as well as deepening collaboration with Guangdong, particularly on how to deal with the thorny challenge of regional smog.

We accept that much more needs to be done, and will continue to strive to reduce the public health risk.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is undersecretary for the environment. This is based on her speech yesterday at a joint chamber luncheon with French, Canadian, German, Italian, Singapore and Swedish chambers of commerce members. The event was hosted by the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong

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This article is now closed to comments

mankydanky
BTW why do Bus/Trucks vent their exhaust at road level and directly at pedestrians on footpaths? Would it make more sense to make the exhaust vent at their roofs?
wwong888
In 2007, Christine Loh Wrote the following in the SCMP regarding Donald Tsangs policy address:
"Another dish was 'air quality', which everyone had been waiting to taste. The stir-fry included a few minor ingredients, such as using cleaner fuels and legislating against idling vehicle engines, but it was thin fare.
A good dish would have been a clear statement of the policy goal - to improve outdoor air quality to the point where air pollution no longer poses a significant risk to human health. Then the cook would have had to fit his ingredients to the policy, explaining how they would complete it. Otherwise, how could the dish be satisfying? By the way he listed the ingredients and trimmings, he seemed to hope diners would just give it a pass."
CHRISTINE - can you live up to this task? Can I see some targets? What are the pollution index targets you intend to achieve by 2014? 2015? 2016? How are we going to get there? Are the measures you state here enough? Can you give me an attribution of how each measure will contribute to specific targets? YOU TALKED A TOUGH GAME ON THE OUTSIDE, SHOW ME YOUR GAME NOW YOU ARE ON THE INSIDE.
SCMP editor - instead of publishing fluff pieces from Christine, how about an interview? Ask her these questions? Cite her prior editorials for the SCMP. Put her to the same standard she held others.
Christine - Don't get me wrong; I want you to succeed. But so far, this is more of the same. Prove me wrong.
Greenwash
While the government measure is good, it is, as other comments have mentioned far too little, too slowly.
1) Why not replace all pre Euro IV vehicles (including buses) by end of 2014? I am sure the vehicle manufacturers will step up production, if need be.
2) Why not move to expand the tram network on Hong Kong island and create one in Kowloon (with right of way for faster transport)
3) Why not replace some bus routes with electric or electric trolley buses as even Shanghai and Beijing have done,
4) Why not ban dirty diesel on marine vehicles not only in the port but anywhere in Hong Kong waters?
So much more can be done, so easily. If this is the best this government can do, it is tremendously disappointing. It does beg the question. Who is really in charge, the CE and his government, or the civil service?
captam
Yes! electric trolley buses are the are the way to go for Hong Kong. They are ideally suited for Hong Kong's hilly terrain and the additional heavy power consumption needed for air-conditioning in summer can be handled by trolley bus overhead wiring systems. Unlike battery-powered buses, which use new and relatively untested technology, trolley buses have been around for decades. Many cities (including on the Mainland) which formerly had trolley bus routes but got rid of them during the era when diesel buses were 'fashionable', now regret their decision. Some cities in China are now re-introducing them.
To demonstrate that trolleys are the right transport mode for Hong Kong, a new route should first be introduced within the next two years. Discovery Bay would be an ideal place to demonstrate this green technology for both internal and external routes to Sunny Bay. Get the boys down from China to erect the wiring ( a third of the cost of European imports) and also get China's bus builders to build a batch of electric double deck trolley buses. Get on with it!
captam
Photo of electric Trolley bus trial in Discovery Bay...................... if only:
h-t-t-p://i1103.photobucket.com/albums/g468/chinarail1/Rat-BayTrolley-Bus2_zpsace1fb67.jpg
( delete letter spaces in 'h-t-t-p')
wwong888
Greenwash, no one is in charge. Just a bunch of bureacrats running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I guess Christine needed to make some money, since being an advocate in a think tank probably doesn't pay as well as working in the highest paid civil service in the world. Its really not that hard. As a government, HK doesn't need to set foreign policy, monetary policy, we have big brother to tell us what to do on all this, we don't need to manage a military, we have no welfare programs to administer... yet... our civil servants are paid so much to basically just run the city, and they fail miserably at doing anything innovative or different than what the British taught them up to 1997... Oh wait... yes, now they are focused on changing disclosure requirements for limited companies so corrupt officials can stash their loot here. Its truly pathetic and shameful.
wwong888
Christine - You are a pale image of your old self after having gone from advocate to govn't employee. Everything you propose is - too late, too little, too slow. Radical change is needed, not slow moving incremental solutions.
superdx
On holidays like CNY and Christmas, where most businesses have stopped, the air in Hong Kong is surprisingly pleasant. The lack of commercial vehicles on the road is a major factor. Just like the Olympics in 2008 when China mandated polluted factories close, the skies in HK were beautiful. The dream of clean skies and clean air is possible, and clearly can be accomplished with sufficient political will. It has been done before.
captam
Where are your plans to reduce the numbers of private cars on the roads and reduce traffic congestion, which costs billions of dollars each year in lost productivity? Where are your plans to curtail the illegal take-over of our narrow roads by selfish private car drivers, while at the same time reducing the width of pavements and removing pedestrian crossing facilities to allow people on foot to move freely in down town areas? Where are your plans to pedestrianize our busy down-town shopping streets like almost every other country ( including in Mainland cities) has done? Where are your plans to inspect private cars and vans exhaust systems for faulty emission controls after a car is two years old, as is done worldwide except in third world countries?
megafun
Does Christine knows that most vehicles, and all taxis, mini-buses, light-goods-vans, can be converted to electric drives. HKPC and APAS had proved this can be done. However, our EB / EPD, under the previous Sec. - Edward Yau; did not support this idea, as it does not benefit new vehicles' sales. Conversion is eco-friendly, similar to re-use. So, EB, do the eco-thing, and promote conversion of EVs.

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