Early last year, officials said that the proposal to increase the first registration tax on private cars was aimed at tackling air pollution. Legislators who didn't initially support the idea had to be convinced that the financial burden on new car owners was a small price to pay for reducing the health burden of the community.
Clearly, fewer cars means less emissions, and that can only benefit public heath. But now we have a proposal to allow a limited number of mainlanders to drive their private cars into Hong Kong. This has triggered much public opposition, with the fear that it would increase risks for motorists and pedestrians.
We are also concerned that it would worsen our already poor roadside air quality, with pollutants generated by vehicles trapped between Hong Kong's tall buildings and unable to disperse. Hong Kong already has one of the highest densities of vehicles on its roads when compared with other cities, with 570 vehicles per square kilometre.
Our government proposes to allow a quota of 50 local private cars to travel across the border in the first phase. In return, as part of the second phase, it plans to allow 50 private cars from the mainland to enter Hong Kong for a stay of up to seven days. That means, on any day, there could potentially be 350 more mainland cars on our roads.
No doubt, once the tourism-related industries have experienced the benefits of the scheme, the two governments would move to increase the daily quota.
Hong Kong's private cars are relatively new and feature the latest stringent emission standards. In addition, our government has set a very high standard for fuel.
However, in Guangdong, auto fuel standards are up to 15 times worse in terms of sulphur content. There are also still lots of older vehicles operating on the streets that could produce higher emissions.
Therefore, even if the government were to allow in private cars from the mainland that met the latest stringent emission standards, these vehicles would still be running on lower-quality fuel, and that can only exacerbate our air pollution.
While Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau Tang-wah has tried hard to introduce more electric cars into the city and enact the new idling-engine law to improve our air quality, the cross-boundary scheme works against the bureau's policy objectives.
We welcome mainlanders who want to visit Hong Kong for sightseeing, shopping and the like, and there are greener transport options than private cars that could get them more efficiently to their desired destinations without adding pollution to our city.
Edwin Lau Che-feng is director of general affairs at Friends of the Earth (HK)