CommentInsight & Opinion

Fresh thinking needed to win air pollution battle

Kwong Sum Yin welcomes the government's new plan to tackle air pollution but says the whole of society will need to change its mindset, and make sacrifices, if we are to see clearer skies

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 3:20am
 

When Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing unveiled the government's plan to improve Hong Kong's air recently, he was joined by representatives from three other bureaus - transport and housing; development; and food and health. The attendance of these other officials was unprecedented and signalled the government's intention to respond to calls for the departments to work together to tackle air pollution.

The plan's announcement also marks another first - the link between public health and air pollution has formally been recognised, as evidenced by the presence of a high-ranking health official. This new plan is to be welcomed.

Some critics, however, have said that it is just old wine in a new bottle. It may be true that many of the measures mentioned in the plan have been brought up in the past, time and again, but the point to focus on is whether these measures can and will be implemented soon.

Take, for example, the retirement of old commercial diesel vehicles. This action has been talked about repeatedly over the past eight years, but little has been done. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying this year earmarked HK$10 billion to phase them out and discussions between stakeholders are happening in earnest. The success of this measure will be critical in determining whether we will soon see a significant improvement in our roadside air.

This measure could potentially create a domino effect for clean air, but, should it fail to take off, the road ahead for government planners could be an uphill climb, because any policy that follows will have a lower chance of success.

Another key measure to reduce pollution is the proposed requirement for ocean-going vessels to switch to low-sulphur fuel at berth in Hong Kong. The government is currently negotiating with various industry parties to effect it. A five-year study has attributed 519 deaths in the Pearl River Delta region - including 385 in Hong Kong - to the ill-effects of sulphur dioxide from ship emissions. If all ocean-going vessels were to switch to using low- sulphur fuel while at berth, the number of Hong Kong deaths could drop by half.

To succeed, both these measures require all of Hong Kong's citizens to change from thinking only of the present to carefully considering our longer-term well-being. Clean air must be a key element in this future.

This may mean we each pay a little more out of our pockets now to reap the benefits in the future. This applies particularly to polluters. They should take responsibility for the public health burden they create and pay what is necessary to lessen that burden so that everyone can breathe easier.

Past attitudes have meant that the environmental and public health consequences of our decisions are often not considered beforehand and, instead, are merely dealt with as an afterthought: a mess can be made and the clean-up can come later.

For a long time, Hongkongers have had to suffer the damage inflicted on them by polluters - the premature deaths, the hospital days, the doctor visits and the hours of lost productivity - and the amount grows year by year. These external costs should no longer be hidden away and ignored.

This new way of thinking must extend to the furthest reaches of the government. The new plan assumes that the number of private cars here will continue to grow, but if the air quality is to improve in the coming years, the use of vehicles ought to be curbed. This falls under the oversight of the Transport and Housing Bureau and it is up to officials there to exercise a fresh mindset and shift from simply meeting demand to controlling it.

The same applies to the Development Bureau. When it comes to new construction projects, are officials ready to bring the environment into the equation and not simply prioritise economic considerations? As the Kai Tak cruise terminal continues to develop, will they have the foresight to create a low-emission zone within the surrounding roads and install onshore power facilities for ships? To do so would demonstrate their commitment to people over cars and to citizens' quality of life over tourism.

The government's new plan outlines the actions we must take if we genuinely want clean air. And this must include tackling the problem at its source. We should ask ourselves: are we ready for this new attitude? Are we ready to sacrifice a little convenience? Are we ready to stop prioritising economic growth at the cost of everything else?

In addition, it should be clear that action from the Environment Bureau alone is not enough. The bureaus for transport and development must take on bigger roles for the effective implementation of policies to improve our air quality.

To win this fight, the whole of society - individuals, industries and government departments - must begin thinking in a new way and work to benefit all in the long term.

Kwong Sum Yin is CEO of the Clean Air Network

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