• Thu
  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 7:40am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Air pollution must top Leung's policy address agenda

Edwin Lau says a detailed plan to curb the local emissions that blight our health would, above all else, demonstrate the chief executive's commitment to the people in his policy address

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 10:51am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 January, 2014, 3:42am

Hong Kong is famous for its efficient public transport systems, which carry millions of people from home to work every day. At the same time, it is equally "famous" for its polluted air, to which public transport, in the form of buses and taxis, contributes. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying needs to pay serious attention to this problem as he prepares his policy address.

Local sources of emissions - such as vehicles and power plants - affect Hong Kong's air quality. So do regional sources from the mainland due to the prevailing winds in winter. Even so, government officials are often too quick to blame the weather conditions, instead of their ineffective policies.

Air quality in over 100 mainland cities recently reached such a dire state that flights were suspended, some highways were closed, respiratory illnesses surged, and face masks sold out. Some mainlanders said they'd prefer slower economic growth in return for better health for their children.

Still, particles can travel far and wide to affect us. So if the Hong Kong government is serious about improving our air quality - which was worse in 2013 than in the previous year - to safeguard public health, it needs to engage business owners who have invested in factories, power plants and the like across the border, to help the mainland reduce pollution too.

Under "one country, two systems", our government can only encourage Hong Kong business owners to reduce pollution by providing incentives such as free environmental audits to identify their emissions inventory or giving recognition to those who can demonstrate good results.

The World Health Organisation announced in mid-2012 that diesel fumes had been elevated from a probable to a known carcinogen. This is a serious health warning, similar to "Smoking can kill". Our chief executive, as his utmost priority, needs to review air pollution control policies to bring down local emissions to the safe level recommended by the WHO. Health is the most important asset of every citizen and society as a whole.

In crowded urban areas, buses and trucks are driven from dawn to late at night, and they are powered by diesel engines with different emission standards, from the worst polluting pre-Euro standard to the cleaner Euro VI. The recently approved HK$11.7 billion subsidy scheme to phase out old diesel vehicles is one good step among many and our government should encourage vehicle owners to apply.

Similar to energy issues, we should consider policies from the demand and supply side, with a holistic plan to tackle air pollution problems effectively.

On the demand side, we should focus on transport planning and control. Low- emission zones and a vehicle labelling system are necessary to prevent old polluting vehicles from entering designated areas at certain times of the day. A labelling scheme is relatively easy to implement. The Transport Department could use two colours for vehicle licences, to differentiate zero-emission vehicles with engines of Euro IV standards or better from vehicles that meet the Euro III or lower standards.

Further, rationalising bus routes is a political exercise for Leung and Environment Minister Wong Kam-sing; they must convince district councillors of the health benefits to their voters if unnecessary bus routes are cut.

On the supply side, we should explore options for cleaner fuels and more efficient engines. Currently, taxis and around half the minibus fleet are powered by LPG. However, the government does not control the price of LPG at stations that provide different types of fuel. So most LPG vehicles instead queue up to refill at LPG-only stations, which sell the fuel at a lower price due to government controls.

If both types of station were subject to the same price controls, it may help convince owners of the remaining half of the minibus fleet to change to LPG models. This would create a more even distribution of LPG vehicles in all districts, alleviating traffic congestion and reducing air pollution.

Biodiesel is another greener fuel we should consider. Both local and overseas institutions have confirmed that it emits fewer pollutants, including particulate, smoke and hydrocarbons, than conventional diesel.

The government should mandate that all refilling stations provide diesel containing 5 per cent of biodiesel (B-5) as a start, as car dealers have already approved B-5 for vehicles. Also, why aren't buses using B-5 under the franchise agreement with the government?

And why has the mainland already adopted electric buses to reduce air pollution while Hong Kong's plan is still at the pilot stage?

Air pollution costs precious lives. If Leung wants to be greeted by handshakes instead of a barrage of eggs, he should show some commitment by making our air safer to breathe within his tenure.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of general affairs at Friends of the Earth (HK). www.foe.org.hk

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This article is now closed to comments

pragmatist
Absolutely critical to address pollution from the ships. Let's stop being ostriches. Let's not harm ourselves. Let's not make the future generations crippled because of inaction and politics of few. Start taking action, enough talk!
captam
Always blaming the buses! What about half a million cars and vans on congested down-town streets preventing the dispersal of exhaust emissions?
And do you think that the poisonous gases and particles emitted from slow moving cars, many with defective exhausts (having not been inspected for up to 7 years), do not contribute to the toxic soup we have to breathe?
kafei
Fully agree.
dynamco
FOE HK uses the name Friends of the Earth HK
It has not been part of FOE International for decades
Our major polluter in HKG is OGV shipping using 2.7 – 4% hi sulfur bunker fuel with the consistency of dregs asphalt tar hence the NOx, SOx & particulate emissions
Our local vehicular diesel is Euro V with just 0.001 parts per million sulfur – adding bio diesel would have a negligible effect
Someone should tell FOE
One of the latest mega container ship’s emissions are equivalent to 50 million car emissions
Fact
www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1229857/How-16-ships-create-pollution-cars-world.html
Shenzhen will shortly overtake Singapore as no 2 busiest world port, HKG will become 4th, Shanghai is 1st & Yantian handled almost ½ the equiv number of HKG port’s TEUs last year – hence we are encircled with toxic shipping emissions year round. If we shut down our power plants, banned traffic in the streets for 24 hours HKG would still be smog bound from the shxt thrown into the air by the OGVs, all of which already have dual fuel tanks , one for lo sulfur fuel, so they can legally access ports in ECA areas in USA, Canada, Baltic & North Sea.
We need an Emissions Control Area for shipping in PRD.
Then we will start to see clear air.
Meanwhile buses in major thoroughfares like Nathan Rd, Central , CWB to be designated Clean Air Zones should be hybrids with other routes terminating outside the Clean Air Zones & free Octopus linked transport on the CAZ shuttle buses.
r6b
I think the 3 main bus companies are actually the least of the offenders on the roads. Its the private busses and medium/heavy trucks that are leaving trails of black exhaust.
On the marine side, the diesel barges are continuously belching black exhaust, every time they raise a load. They simply do not have any incentive to maintain engine performance.
dynamco
www.airclim.org/sites/default/files/documents/Air%20pollution%20from%20ships_Nov_2011.pdf
then ask who owns HK Port, Shenzhen port, Yantian port
Kubrick
For years we have been demanding action as our environment got worse. Donald TSANG promised us a clean up with his 'Blue Sky" policy and then did nothing. And that's been the routine all along; make lots of promises, talk with determination and then do nothing. It is clear that business interests come first and our health is a low priority. I had hoped that the appointment of Christine LOH would herald some changes. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be happening. SCMP please keep up the pressure on the government for the sake of our children.
pragmatist
Yes - great job scmp. Thank you.
Keep pressing and hold the officials accountable.
johnyuan
I am not sure why any work to be done by government that its citizens need to wait for a yearly policy speech? For the Friends of the Earth, I would imagine it has even more sense of urgency for its interests.
.
When we are living in an air that kills, we need not to wait till the next policy speech. If there is a legislative procedure imperative, just get rid of it and do the common sense thing – act now.
cc88
Edwin - why have you completely ignored the issue of marine diesel which contributes significantly to pollution? It is the dirtiest diesel there is and yet you make no mention of it. The Hong Kong government is completely powerless against mainland pollution. It is an intractable problem. I cannot see how it will be solved.

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