CommentInsight & Opinion

Lives at stake in delay to phase out polluting diesel commercial vehicles

Tiffany Leung says the government must honour its original timetable to ban polluting vehicles because any delay can be counted in lives lost

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 11:39pm

At the beginning of the year, the chief executive announced that HK$10 billion would be earmarked for replacement of pre-Euro IV diesel commercial vehicles. Now, the government has announced changes to the related programmes, including an increase in the subsidy to HK$11.71 billion and deferring retirement deadlines for Euro I, II and III diesel commercial vehicles by one year.

The proposed extension of a year to the schedule to phase out these polluting vehicles is a grave matter, given the repercussions for public health. Under the new timetable, pre-Euro IV vehicles would not be banned completely until 2020. The public stands ready and willing to shell out the necessary funds, so is it not up to the government to set a strong bottom line and give them what they want - clean air to breathe - as soon as possible?

The government has stated that, even with the new schedule, the oldest, most polluting vehicles of pre-Euro standard will still be removed by the original date of 2016, but has neglected to address the issue of lives lost in the extra years while Euro I, II and III vehicles continue to run on our roads.

During the first half of this year, according to the Hedley Environmental Index, air pollution led to 1,606 premature deaths. That compares with 1,459 premature deaths in the same period last year.

How do these figures measure up against other causes of mortality in Hong Kong? The death toll due to air pollution in the first six months of this year is almost five times higher than the total of 299 deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome in Hong Kong in 2003. The figure is even more alarming when compared to the number of traffic-related fatalities in Hong Kong - in 2012, that figure was 119. It seems that the city's air pollution, largely generated by vehicles, kills more people than vehicles do themselves.

The new delay in the schedule was attributed to trucking industry concerns that the original deadlines would have created a rush to buy new vehicles, allowing dealers to raise prices far above their market value. However, with an increased subsidy already proposed, it is time for polluters to take responsibility for the harm they are causing and act quickly, instead of dragging it out. The polluter-pays principle applies to sewage treatment costs and will soon apply to waste disposal. It should apply to emissions generation, too.

The implementation of the original schedule to phase out all pre-Euro IV vehicles would have reduced emissions of respirable suspended particulates and nitrogen oxides from vehicles by 80 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. This would have resulted in a 14 per cent drop in the number of premature deaths due to long-term exposure to these pollutants, as well as a 50 per cent reduction in cancer risk due to exposure.

If we continue to let short-term economic considerations take priority over public health, we will never grow to be a city that can set a green example for all others in Asia. The government should show its commitment to upholding the principles behind the Clean Air Plan, released earlier this year, and move the original timetable up by a year, so that the vision outlined of Hong Kong as a clean living community can become a reality.

Tiffany Leung is programme development manager at Clean Air Network

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