In Hong Kong, political will is the key to clean air
We could do without the air pollution we have suffered this week, but it does serve to remind the administration of the declaration by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that the quality of the air we breathe is a core livelihood issue. Roadside readings in Central on Monday were so bad that everyone was advised to steer clear of areas with heavy traffic - not just those with breathing or heart problems. The last two days have brought no relief.
Contributing factors were light winds that failed to clear the air and, as usual, pollution originating on the mainland. But these underline how important it is for Hong Kong to strive for an acceptable living environment with concrete efforts to reduce home-grown pollution. It is self-evident that this has not been the case, since roadside pollution originates locally.
The government recently revealed a plan which anticipates new air-quality targets to be officially unveiled next year, and aims to meet them by 2020. It includes HK$10 billion in cash incentives to get the dirtiest commercial vehicles off our streets by 2019, and retrofitting 1,400 franchised buses with diesel emission controls. As a result, officials say, roadside pollution could be significantly lower in four to five years. The exception will be nitrogen dioxide, which is expected to still be double the new standard by 2020. Indeed, a high concentration of nitrogen dioxide is mainly responsible for this week's pollution.
The current administration has raised public expectations by vowing to do better than its predecessors. That will require political will to do what it takes. Environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai has said that more pedestrian-only areas or traffic diversions might be necessary to tackle nitrogen dioxide emissions. For the sake of our health, officials should be prepared to look at any option, even from critics such as Friends of the Earth, which says they might get more value for HK$10 billion if they focused on the worst polluters - pre-Euro-standard, Euro-I and Euro-II vehicles - before tackling Euro-III.