It was supposed to be a glowing moment for the environment chief.
What if every family had a voucher to buy energy-saving light bulbs, Edward Yau Tang-wah wondered.
But the idea lit a fuse. Critics said the government intended the scheme to benefit one of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's in-laws, who is the biggest importer of a top brand of energy-saving bulbs.
Now the HK$240 million coupon scheme has quietly been dropped.
Yau said yesterday it was shelved after 'internal discussions' found it might require the use of public money and therefore could breach the government's user-pays principle.
Green groups criticised the Environment Bureau for using 'user-pays' as an excuse to bury a botched policy. Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said the chief executive, who announced the scheme in his policy address last year, had passed the buck by not explaining the decision himself.
Under the scheme, 2.4 million households would have received HK$100 coupons to spend on replacing their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps, said to be up to 80 per cent more efficient.
It sparked allegations of favouritism after it emerged that Anthony Mok Kam-chuen, father-in-law of Tsang's elder son, headed a firm distributing Philips light bulbs. Tsang labelled the allegations 'absolute fabrications' and 'vicious attacks'.
The scheme was originally to be financed through higher power bills but the government said last November it would look at other ways to pay for the coupons.
Yau said on a Metro Radio talk show yesterday that the government had realised it would be difficult to implement the scheme without it having an impact on electricity tariffs.
'We have to be cautious if public money is incurred. Therefore, we decided not to go ahead with the scheme,' he said.
Friends of the Earth director Edwin Lau Che-feng said the government was being inconsistent in shelving the scheme; the Environment and Conservation Fund supported district projects to fund residents using energy-saving light bulbs. Organisations whose applications had been approved by the fund included DAB Community Services and the Ma On Shan Community Service Association.
Eu said the government's reasoning for shelving the scheme was unconvincing.
'The coupon scheme could encourage the public to switch to energy-efficient products. The government has provided incentives in recent years to induce people to adopt environment-friendly measures,' she said.
It introduced a HK$3.2 billion scheme in 2007 to phase out old diesel vehicles and introduced tax concessions for buyers of cars deemed environmentally friendly.
'The chief executive should have come out to explain to the public the decision to shelve the scheme but he has passed the buck to the environment minister,' Eu said, 'Donald Tsang has failed to do what a political leader is supposed to do.'
Hahn Chu Hon-keung, the environmental affairs manager of Friends of the Earth, said the user-pays principle should not be an excuse to cover up a government mistake.
'The British government spends money to help the poor adapt to climate change measures,' he said.