Up to lawmakers now to do their part to phase out old polluting vehicles

Freda Fung urges legislators to protect the public by passing long-overdue regulations to stop old diesel vehicles polluting our roadside air

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 11:38am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 7:50pm

A bill that seeks to take polluting vehicles off our roads was gazetted on October 25 and now awaits a vote in the Legislative Council. The Air Pollution Control (Air Pollutant Emission) (Controlled Vehicles) Regulation offers subsidies for phasing out pre-Euro IV diesel commercial vehicles and limits the service life of all newly registered diesel vehicles to 15 years.

While the requirements have been relaxed to give vehicle owners more time and subsidies to retire their old diesel vehicles, the bill is nonetheless a significant step towards improving roadside air quality.

Numerous studies have shown that traffic pollution is linked to increased health risks. Particulate matter from diesel engines, in particular, can cause lung cancer, exacerbate asthma, and increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Latest research also suggests that air pollution affects fetal growth: babies born to mothers living in areas with air pollution and heavy traffic are more likely to have a lower birthweight and smaller head circumference.

Drivers of old diesel vehicles face even greater health risks than the public. A US study found that truck drivers have a 15 to 40 per cent higher risk of developing lung cancer, and those who do the job for 20 years could see their risk doubled.

In Hong Kong, diesel commercial vehicles are a key culprit for worsening air quality. They contribute to nearly a fifth of the city's overall particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions; the latter contributes to the formation of ozone and fine particulate matter. Worse, most people in Hong Kong live or work in close proximity to major roads where pollutants from vehicles are emitted.

Hong Kong residents pay a high price for the worsening air quality - more than 3,000 premature deaths and monetary losses of HK$39 billion were caused by air pollution last year. Replacing all the pre-Euro IV diesel commercial vehicles with Euro V or cleaner ones is expected to lower particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions from road transport by 80 per cent and 30 per cent respectively, according to the government's estimates. So the bill, if passed, should offer significant health benefits, and lead to substantially lower health care costs associated with air pollution in the long term.

Hong Kong is not the first to encourage phasing out diesel vehicles or limiting vehicle service life. In Japan, prohibiting registration of older vehicles has been part of the measures to reduce emissions in the high-pollution metropolitan areas such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe for over 10 years; in mainland China, in response to persistent air pollution problems, an increasing number of cities, like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, are introducing subsidies and establishing low-emission zones.

It is time for Hong Kong to clean up our diesel vehicles. Immediate passage of the bill to phase out old diesel vehicles will mark a critical first step. By doing so, legislators will not only restore our basic right to breathe clean air - a right that all Hong Kong residents have longed for - they will also protect the public health (including the health of diesel vehicle drivers), and improve the well-being of current and future generations.

Freda Fung, a consultant with Civic Exchange, is the director of Fung Research Limited